Will movie-makers ever learn how to play the video game on the big screen?

A backlash against the transformation of Sonic the Hedgehog for the big screen has forced the animators back to the drawing board

Ryan Reynolds voices the titular character in the upcoming 'Pokemon Detective Pikachu'. Courtesy Shooting Stars UAE
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This week, a curious thing happened. ­Hollywood actually listened. The trailer for Sonic The Hedgehog dropped and the reaction was near-hysteria, as fans balked at the computer-generated design of Sega's most famous video game character. Director Jeff Fowler immediately took to social media. "The message is loud and clear," he wrote. "You aren't happy with the design and you want changes."

Whether Fowler and his animation team will have enough time to incorporate adjustments into this live-action/computer-generated hybrid before its November release remains to be seen.

It will take much work to eliminate Sonic's oddly human legs and teeth that left viewers aghast. But one thing is clear: Fowler is desperate to appease fans too often let down by game-to-movie adaptations. Ever since the early Nineties, when Bob Hoskins donned dungarees to play everyone's favourite plumber in the Super Mario Bros. movie and Kylie Minogue joined Jean-Claude Van Damme for Street ­Fighter, studios have struggled to bring video games to the big screen. Arguably, those early efforts could be forgiven, with visual effects nowhere near the level they're at now.

Yet recent films have been equally disappointing. As games have become increasingly immersive and more complex, the film versions have been left wanting. Movie takes on hugely successful game franchises – World of Warcraft, Assassin's Creed, Tomb Raider and Max Payne among them – have all largely failed to replicate the experience of playing the game for viewers. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise us.

While films are essentially a passive experience, games are a far more interactive journey, where players are increasingly encouraged to guide characters around so-called 'sandbox' open worlds. Is it any wonder that the best of these – Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series, for example – have steered clear of adapting for the big screen and the limitations that movie-watching can bring?

FILE - This file  image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Daniel Wu, left, and Alicia Vikander in a scene from "Tomb Raider." “Black Panther” has become the first film since 2000’s “Avatar” to top the weekend box office five straight weekends. According to studio estimates Sunday, March 18, 2018, “Black Panther” grossed $27 million in ticket sales over the weekend, pushing its domestic haul to $605.4 million. The rebooted “Tomb Raider,” starring Vikander, opened with $23.5 million. (Ilze Kitshoff/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP, File)
Daniel Wu, left, and Alicia Vikander in the latest 'Tomb Raider' reboot. AP

Sometimes, all it takes is for a movie studio to latch on to a basic concept, in the way Sony did for its animated The Angry Birds Movie. Rovio Entertainment's massive mobile-seller, Angry Birds was a hit game with no plot – players simply had to catapult birds towards a pig's fortress. But these feathered creatures were enough to enchant younger viewers. Grossing $352 million (Dh1.29 billion) worldwide, a sequel will be released this year.

Older gamers might be harder to please, however. "There's a lot of great intellectual property (IP) out there," says Gary Dauberman, writer-director of upcoming horror Annabelle Comes Home and a gaming fan. "But I think it's 'How can we take the IP and make it something new?' You've got to give them a new experience when you're watching a movie or else you're just going to go home and play a game. So you have to expand the universe a little bit using the IP."

One such example is being released this week in cinemas. A family film with adult humour, Pokemon Detective Pikachu is a quite exhilarating take on the 2016 adventure game for the Nintendo 3DS. Created in 1995, the Japanese-based franchise about a world of 'pocket monsters' has spawned everything from trading cards and comics to animated movies, but nothing quite as lavish as this live-action/CG mix. 

A film noir-drenched tale set in Ryme City, a world where humans and Pokemon creatures co-exist, the story sees youngster Tim (Justice Smith) team up with the diminutive furry yellow Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) in the hope of solving the death of his police officer father. Seeing Ryme City teeming with Pokemon must be a pure delight to hardcore fans of the franchise.

"We spent a year designing all the characters ahead of shooting so that we could get it all right," director Rob Letterman recently told The Verge. He and his team collaborated with The Pokemon Company in Japan, whilst also studying the way real-life animals behave. "There's an extraordinary amount of craft that went into making the movie on the animation side as we tried to bring everything to life." Such care, rather like Fowler's willingness to pay heed to the fans regarding Sonic The Hedgehog, seems vital in an age when movies are vying for audience attention with video games, the internet and streaming sites like Netflix.

There have been other recent examples, too, where creators have gone back to the drawing board. Take Five Nights at Freddy's, a PC game whose movie adaptation has been in the works since Warner Bros. Pictures bought the rights in 2015. The original game, launched in 2014, told the story of a security guard working at a kid's pizza restaurant, facing off with all manner of homicidal animatronic characters. Game creator Scott Cawthon admitted last year that despite others signing off on his script, he decided to scrap it. "I'm sticking to what I've always said: either the right movie get made or no movie gets made," he said. "I have to go with my instincts … what I think the fanbase will really want to see."

A ahndout still showing Red (Jason Sudeikis) in Columbia Pictures and Rovio Animation's ANGRY BIRDS. (Courtesy: Rovio Animation) *** Local Caption ***  al12ma-reefer-angry01.jpg
'Angry Birds' is getting a sequel later this year. Courtesy Rovio Animation

A similar example occurred with The Last of Us. The quite brilliant post-apocalyptic game from developers Naughty Dog was set for a movie adaptation, produced by Sam Raimi and with Game of Thrones' Maisie Williams mooted to star. Game director (and Naughty Dog VP) Neil Druckmann penned the script, but the film still hasn't made it to the starting gate. "Having some separation from it," he said last year, "I look back and [am] like, 'I don't want that movie to be made.'"

If that suggests artistic integrity – and a desire to protect the brand, with The Last of Us 2 due to hit consoles later this year – curiously, Druckmann's company has been more laissez-faire with its other bestseller. A movie of the Uncharted series, which followed the exploits of Indiana Jones-style treasure hunter Nathan Drake, has been in development for years. Lining up current Spider-Man actor Tom Holland, the plan is to make Drake much younger than his game character, an idea that entirely misses the point.

Largely, though, video-game adaptations are moving in the right direction, says Dauberman. “I think they are finally cracking it … I’m excited to see what happens just as a fan, a video game player.” One advancement may well lie with Netflix, Amazon Prime and other streaming companies. With the ability to produce multi-episode shows, dealing with complex narratives, it’s possible to better capture the spirit of more advanced games.

It's doubtless what Netflix is banking on with its forthcoming fantasy series The Witcher, featuring Superman star Henry Cavill as the silver-haired, monster-slaying Geralt. While it began life as a novel series by Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, it gained huge acclaim as a trilogy of morally complex games. It's the sort of high-spec show that might just have enough about it to cause gamers to put down their controllers.

Yet, ironically, one of the most significant moments came with Netflix's recent Black Mirror episode Bandersnatch. Set in the 1980s, it was a 'choose your own adventure' style narrative, allowing viewers to navigate multiple endings using their remote control. While this can't yet be replicated in a cinema, it was surely the closest we've come to seeing an 'open world' style experience on screen. It's far from game over.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu opens in cinemas on Thursday