An early pitch for the US release of the original Pokemon movie might have seen Leonardo DiCaprio step in as the voice of Ash Ketchum.
The latest episode of new Spotify podcast The Big Hit Show dissects Pokemon’s journey to success in North America. Already well-established in Japan, the show was passed to 4Kids – an American production company owned by Konami – to be pitched in the US.
On the podcast, Norman Grossfeld- CEO of 4Kids from 1994 until 2009 – explains that his team struggled to sell the show to any major American children’s TV companies, even after translating each Pokemon’s name from Japan and scrubbing other Japanese cultural references from the show.
Eventually, the original series was syndicated – sold to individual channels one at a time – before landing on The WB (since then, Pokemon has appeared on Cartoon Network, Disney, and Netflix among others). Its eventual success, however, lead to 4Kids being placed in charge of the rights to the first movie, which released in the US in 1999. During that search, Grossfeld says he was given an unexpected pitch for a lead actor from one studio executive:
“He said ‘Hey, we really want this. We can make this work. We’re going to bring in Leonardo DiCaprio to play the voice of Ash. It’s going to get a lot of buzz, we’re going to have a lot, and we’ll get all these celebrities. It’s going to be really big’.”
As The Big Hit Show host Alex Pappademas points out, in the late 90s DiCaprio was coming off a world-beating few years. As well as an Oscar nomination for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 1994, he’d also had a starring role in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, and more importantly, Titanic. Whether he would have been interested in playing Ash Ketchum, we’ll never know – Grossfeld says he immediately shut down the idea, as the children watching the film would have been confused by Ash’s new voice. The movie eventually went to Warner Bros, and the rest is history.
You can check out the rest of the podcast here, where Grossfeld discusses the origin of the series’ famous opening credits, and in which The Pokemon Company president Tsunekazu Ishihara talks about the bizarre redesigns for Pikachu that some studios suggested.