What's on the Pokémenu?

A chat with Australian animator brainqueen on his disturbing viral hit

What's on the Pokémenu?

The bulb is twisted and ripped off the back of a Bulbasaur. A Squirtle shell is split open with a mallet after its limbs, tail, and head are lopped off. A Charmander, sans-tail, is rolled off the block and into the bin. “These exquisite dishes look legitimately delicious,” Jared Stewart writes, “if only fans can look past the macabre nature of their preparation.”

@brainqueen the wet markets in Veridian City never cease to surprise.#framebyframe #pokemon #animationtiktok #bulb #butcher #animation #covid19 #lockdown ♬ original sound - brainqueen

Pokémenu is the brainchild of Australian animator brainqueen. The YouTube video¹ has three segments, each of which starts with a clip from the beginning of the first Game Boy games. In the games, the player is choosing their first Pokémon companion from Professor Oak’s lab. In the video, you’re choosing the main ingredient of a meal.

Many fans could not look past the macabre nature of watching their childhood companions chopped into bits.

TikTok comment: "I'm sending this to my friends to traumatize them like this did to me"
TikTok comment: "Why. Dear God Why. Never Make Me Watch This Again"
TikTok Comment: "Goes vegan"

While the video has done well on YouTube with over 142,000 views at publication, it really struck a nerve on TikTok, where shorter individual clips have over 13.5 million views collectively. And those are just the videos on brainqueen’s accounts, and not counting people who have stolen and reposted the clips or used TikTok’s Duet feature to share a horrified response.

Brainqueen has been posting animations online since he was studying game design and animation in Brisbane, Australia. “At the time, it was an amazing place to be for an animator,” brainqueen told me when we chatted last week. “There were a lot of gaming studios there, and then while I was at uni, it all collapsed.” After spending years trying to build a career as an independent animator, he became a primary school teacher while still releasing work under the brainqueen name.

Screenshot from Pokémenu video showing roasted bulbasaur meal art.

While Pokémenu came together in just two weeks this summer as a submission to the international animation challenge Loopdeloop (“The theme was meat.”), it’s been percolating in brainqueen’s mind for years. In the video, after preparation, the final meals are revealed as lovingly detailed illustrations. The original concept was just that final art, released as “a laminated menu with numbers for each meal, up to the original 150 Pokémon.”

The project stayed on the back burner because brainqueen struggled to come up with original meal ideas for each Pokémon, but he would tell his partner “you know, if we ever are strapped for cash flow, there’s always Pokémenu. We kind of had this idea that it would click with people.”

With millions of views racked up in just over a month since the video was first released, to say it’s clicking with people may be an understatement. The big surprise may be the platform where it’s blowing up; until this summer, brainqueen had never even looked at TikTok, and now, that’s the main driver for Pokémenu’s viral success.

“My phone hasn’t stopped. Notifications haven’t stopped in weeks. I’ve never experienced anything like that. I’ve been putting stuff up for ages. My main project that I spent three years doing didn’t amount to anything.” For brainqueen, having an animation that he spent only two weeks working on become the thing that suddenly makes people notice him—“it’s just weird.”

TikTok comment: "I'm crying right now doing that to an animal not a pet would be much better than a Pokemon"
TikTok comment: "to be fair people do this exact thing with real life animals you guys freak out when its a Pokemon?"

Naturally, many of the comments on the videos have to do with the ethics of eating Pokémon, and more broadly, meat. “I’ve been vegetarian for ages, since high school, but I’m not a person who pushes that on anybody. I wasn’t trying to have that political idea.” Though the videos present the meal preparation in a matter-of-fact manner, without any overt political message, the project relies on an inherent shock factor. We’ve spent the last 25 years thinking of these creatures as cute, cuddly companions, not food.

As a vegan Pokémon fan, I was drawn to the project because of this contradiction. The Pokémon world is a useful pop culture touchstone for making arguments about animal exploitation, but rarely has it been so plainly presented as in Pokémenu. It’s no wonder that some commenters have (lightheartedly?) accused brainqueen of secretly being PETA, with others claiming that they’ll never eat meat again after watching the video.

“I can’t honestly say that I had any intention for that to be the message,” brainqueen told me. But even with a quick, two week project such as this, an animator spends a lot of time sitting with the art, and in my opinion, it’s not always an artist’s choice as to which of their personal beliefs sink into the work. “I think there was some sort of intention for shock and to make people think about the choice between an animal that you accept eating and one that you don’t. The Pokémon universe lends itself to that idea well,” as each Pokémon—even the ones that are, canonically, eaten for food—are raised as companions and friends in the games and anime. “I can’t claim this was a conscious intention, but I’m definitely glad that people are talking about it.”

GIF showing Charmander getting its tail cut off and body rolled into the trash.

The idea has especially resonated with people when they watch the Charmander segment. “My fiancée told me, you should make it like rhino horn. Not every one of them has to be a meal.” And so, in brainqueen’s imagination, Charmanders are poached for their tails, which are believed to be a strong aphrodisiac. In the video, the Charmander’s body is lackadaisically rolled off the table and into the trash after having its tail removed. It’s genuinely surprising; commenters have repeatedly asked “‘Why are you wasting all that Charmander?’ And it’s like, yeah, right, why do you cut off the shark fin and then throw the whole shark back? That’s the one that made me go, yeah, sweet, people are actually talking about this in a way that they should be talking about things that go on in the real world.”

The flip side of brainqueen’s viral success is that his new fans are now demanding the next installment. “I was calling my fiancée and kind of freaking out, like, I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, I don’t want to be the Pokémon guy.” There’s a real fear of releasing new, unrelated work and having followers respond with “fuck you, where’s Pikachu!?”

“I’ve got other shit going on in my head that I feel is a lot more interesting,” brainqueen says, “but I do fear that no one will give a shit about that. And then it will just be the Pokémon, they’ll just want the Pokémon.” That isn’t to say you won’t see more Pokémenu in the near future. “I’m happy to make more. It’s just the pressure, I think.”

No matter how brainqueen decides to cook Pikachu, it’s sure to convert some fans to veganism, or to at least steer clear of the meat aisle for a few weeks.

  1. Update: As of October 2022, the original YouTube video has been taken down after a copyright claim by the Pokémon Company. You can still find the full video on Newgrounds.