At The Movies - Pokemons Live-Action Evolution Is Mostly Satisfying
By Jordan Bosch
I’m amazed it took this long to get a live-action Pokémon movie.
The Japanese pocket monster franchise is one of the most popular intellectual properties worldwide having spawned numerous video games, card games, mangas, animes, and movies since its creation in 1995 by video game developer Satoshi Tajiri.
And it’s still a phenomenon, so much so that Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, the Rob Letterman-directed adaptation of the 2016 game of the same name, feels no obligation to really explain what Pokémon are or the finer nuances of its world. It presumes it’s audience has had at least a little exposure to the franchise…and they’re probably right in doing so. Most of us at leasthave a passing knowledge of who Pikachu is.
But cultural osmosis aside, this was an unusual choice for a live-action debut. Rather than tell a safe but accessible story about a kid’s journey to be a Pokémon trainer, this film chooses a more specific story that just happens to be set in the Pokémon world and starring their most marketable character.
Further it seemingly breaks the one rule of the universe by giving Pikachu a celebrity voice - the kind of decision that screams studio mandate. Detective Pikachu is an Americanized version of a Japanese property and it really looked like it in the worst way.
Thus I was quite surprised to watch it and find it respected the material despite this, and was actually not a bad film overall.
A young insurance salesman and former aspiring Pokémon trainer Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) travels to the metropolis of Ryme City upon learning of the sudden death of his estranged father, a local P.I. While there, he meets his fathers’ Pokémon partner Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) whom he can surprisingly understand. Insisting that his father isn’t dead, Pikachu leads Tim on an investigation into what really happened and if it’s at all connected to a string of secretive experiments conducted on some Pokémon.
This movie does the smart thing by keeping its focus clear, and not being hung up on periphery details about the heavy and complex Pokémon universe. Pokéballs for instance, make barely an appearance, evolution is an afterthought, and the setting of Ryme City, with its free and equal movement between humans and Pokémon, allows the movie to sidestep any domestic pet or awkward dogfighting parallels. Continuity with the larger universe isn’t a priority, but the film doesn’t dismiss connectivity -making at least one reference that implies it shares a world with the ongoing series.
The distinction between types of Pokémon is irrelevant too, as is the notion of Pokémon masters. It’s just enough to engage new audiences without abandoning or condescending to the dedicated fans -essentially doing right with its’ world-building everything Crimes of Grindelwald did wrong.
And what a wonderful, bizarre world!
Though not nearly as stylized as it could be, there’s aunique, almost cyberpunk aesthetic to Ryme City -with little shades of noir as befitting the mystery story. But it’s also vibrant and colourful and dynamic: a sugar-coated Ghost in the Shell. In fact it’s closest visual analogue may be Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy.
The Pokémon give it this lively breath of fresh air, this alluring character; they occupy its’ every corner, serving perhaps as mere easter eggs for fans, but for everyone else, they’re a signature of a rich and vivacious environment.
Indeed the Pokémon themselves are one of the films’ greatest attributes. The visual effects artists did a superb job rendering so many of these strange creatures so well. They don’t resemble anything realistic, which is good (they should be a step removed from human beings like in any live-action/animation hybrid film), but they are all incredibly lively; and the roster of Pokémon that appear span all generations.
Pikachu of course gets the most attention, and as such is the most vivid and detailed, but special praise should also be given to the designs of Charizard, Mewtwo, Psyduck, and even Bulbasaur, whose adorableness was somehow translated effectively to CGI.
By far Detective Pikachu’s biggest weakness though is its’ plot. It’s yet another buddy comedy mystery pairing a human with an “other” that’s trying to be the next Roger Rabbit. And while it doesn’t fail in that regard as much movies like Alien Nation, Theodore Rex, or last years’ dumpster fire The Happytown Murders, it’s still largely derivative and not very investing.
The plot beats are pretty clear from early on, especially once it borrows one of Zootopia’s story elements, and while a couple moments and major set-pieces are executed creatively, the mystery in no way ever thrills you. Even a subversive technique in its last act isn’t a surprise given recent Hollywood trend, and in fact creates a notable inconsistency in a character ultimately existing just to be a red herring.
The characters are also mildly dissatisfying. Mind, I thought Justice Smith was much better than he was in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Kathryn Newton was pretty good as a news channel blogger with dreams of investigative journalism, and the films’ supporting cast consisted of Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, and Rita Ora of all people.
No, mostly it was the writing that left something to be desired.
Tim never truly escapes being essentially an audience avatar, and as such doesn’t quite come into his own as a protagonist despite a troubled backstory. Newton’s Lucy is also somewhat flat beyond the initial humour of her grandiose dedication in the first act. It’s Pikachu who largely carries the film, Reynolds’ performance actually working well against all odds and in spite of the occasional dumb one-liner.
I’m of the first generation of Pokémon kids and even though I haven’t paid attention to the franchise in years, I won’t deny the charming nostalgia that came over me seeing some of my childhood favourites translated into spectacular CG animation up on the big screen.
Detective Pikachu is not what I expected Pokémon’s inevitable entrance onto the blockbuster movie stage to be, but I am glad it is what it is. It’s story and set-up doesn’t alienate (possibly to a fault), yet still entertains, delights, and opens wide a world fresh with possibility -of course Warner Bros. and Toho want to make more movies. And if they’re going to happen I want to see what the next evolution is.