Synopsis – In a world where people collect Pokémon to do battle, a boy comes across an intelligent talking Pikachu who seeks to be a detective.
My Take – I think it is safe to say, a live-action feature has been something both long desired and dreaded in the Pokémon community. Beginning in 1996, as a pair of JRPG games for Nintendo Game Boy, in current date, Pokémon is one of the most lucrative media franchises in history, with video games in every imaginable genre, toys, television shows, card games, and many more.
Hence, it’s understandable that franchise fans have been wanting to watch a retelling of the story of Ash and his Pikachu on the big screen for some time now, so when The Pokémon Company and Legendary made a decision to create a first live action adaption, many were shocked to know that the film would be instead based on the 2016 game, Detective Pikachu. Though it’s specifically based on the game, it is still rooted in the franchise albeit a different story than what fans are used to, but one that’s still very much a part of this world. Personally, I have never been a fan of the series.
Though I had firsthand contact with the earlier card games, my knowledge of the rest and their various spinoffs largely boils down to knowing a few character names and having a vague understanding of how they do battle. Other than that, I have never seen the TV anime, never watched any of the animated features that are apparently still coming out in Japan on an annual basis, though the world outside of that country lost interest after 2000’s Pokémon 3: The Film.
My interest peaked with Ryan Reynold‘s involvement as the motion captured voice of the titular character, yet I am surprised to say despite the ridiculous concept, this film is weirdly enjoyable, and not once was I confounded by what was happening onscreen. For decades, Hollywood has been trying to crack the code of video game adaptations, attempting to translate the popular medium to the big screen with few successes.
Here, by separating it from the more widely known story and concept, it allows for it to feel more fresh, hereby making it a delightful little package for both fans and non-fans alike. Sure, it’s weird beyond belief, but it sure is fun and entertaining.
Set in Ryme City, a massive, planned metropolis where man and Pokémon live side-by-side in harmony, the story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a small town Insurance agent, who arrives in the city to pick up the remains of his estranged father, Harry Goodman, a renowned Police Detective, who died mysteriously in a car accident.
Also, Tim has not been a fan of Pokémon for a long time and hence is taken a back when he stumbles upon Harry’s partner, Pikachu (voice of Ryan Reynolds), who is suffering from amnesia, but is adamant that there is more to Harry’s death. With the help of aspiring reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck, Tim and Pikachu investigate what really happened to him and soon discover Tim’s father may still be alive. As they dig deeper, though, Tim and Pikachu unravel a plot that could endanger all of Ryme City’s human and Pokémon residents.
What follows is a noir mystery that’s built like a kid’s film but also offers dry humor, outstanding CGI effects and buckets of nostalgia. The whole concept of the film does, on the surface, seem like an absolute mess. More like an unambiguous excuse to get as many of the 809 different species of Pokémon that have been introduced in the last 23 years into the film as possible. Along with that it’s as though the execs at Warner Brothers took a bunch of genres and characters, threw them to the wall and went with which stuck.
You’ve got live action mixed with hyper-real CGI, a noir narrative mixed with cult kid’s characters and a wild blend of sci-fi adventure with classic kid-film escapades; it really shouldn’t work. But weirdly, it kind of does. In a way, it’s refreshing, in this age of never-ending sequels and marketable releases, to find a film that isn’t trying to fit into one particular mainstream box, though its blending of child-friendly stakes and mish-mash genres is a little jarring.
Directed by Rob Letterman (Goosebumps), the story of the film is a little overly simple, yet the certain twists and turns along with some of the choices the film makes, the overall experience becomes wonderfully wild, and the film fully leans into even the weirdest turns it takes. With a PG rating, the film is clearly meant to be enjoyed by all ages, particularly young children – which makes sense since the Pokémon franchise as a whole has been largely targeted at younger audiences.
Where the film mostly excels is when Tim is getting to know Pikachu, and is creating a bond and with the absurdity of a talking Pikachu, it manages to hit many high notes and the mystery helps continue the plot at a very enjoyable rate.
While it does continue on with its high quality as the film progresses, many of the best elements of the film are in the beginning and the noir detective style of the film really shines through here. The basic setup place where humans live alongside non-humans in weird symbiosis; mysterious case involving a disappearance; strained relationship between the protagonist and the “others” of this world — is very similar to the 1988 classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which paired humans with myriad classic cartoon characters. And like Roger Rabbit, this film is at its best when it’s marrying madcap comedy to a surprisingly sophisticated mystery.
But like Roger Rabbit before it, the writing here is pretty smart about making sure you know exactly what Pokémon it’s talking about, even if you don’t know one Pokémon from another. You don’t need a lengthy introduction to a Pokémon named Mr. Mime to get what his whole deal is. You just need to know what mimes are. In a film about Pokémon, though, the story isn’t necessarily the biggest draw. It needs to be solid enough to carry viewers through this larger world and, in that regard, this film is a quite a success. The story may not be the film’s biggest strength, but it does complement the world well, giving the film an avenue through which its viewers can explore Ryme City and the larger universe.
It’s in the world-building that the film truly shines, depicting Pokémon both in the wild and living amongst humans in Ryme City. While the film could understandably be a tough sit for people who don’t know a dang thing about Pokémon and feel like they need to learn all about the pocket monsters and their mysterious lore to follow along, it all miraculously works well together.
Nevertheless, none of them gets more attention than our boy Pikachu, though, and none of them is half as cute. Whatever else we can say about the film, he’s a magnificent triumph at using animation and motion capture to create a fully voluminous, fuzzy, squeezable CGI figure who feels like a perfect fit for the world he inhabits. Pikachu isn’t just meant to look physically plausible next to flesh-and-blood humans, within the unexpectedly grainy, harsh, saturated cinematography by John Mathieson: he’s also meant to look appealing and toyetic, someone who can speak in the sarcastic motor mouth tones of Ryan Reynolds or squeak out the character’s beloved catchphrase “pika pika!” in the mousy tones of Otani Ikue, and in both cases be such a sweet, squishy plush toy of character.
But the core of the film are Tim and Pikachu, leaving Justice Smith and Ryan Reynolds to carry on the buddy cop dynamic despite one voicing a CGI creature. Reynolds, is well-fitted to the role of a quipping, caffeine addicted Pokémon detective, while Smith brings enough likable personality to his character. In supporting turns, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, and Ken Watanabe are solid.
However, Karan Soni and Suki Waterhouse are wasted. Yes, it’s not necessarily the perfect video game adaptation or even the perfect film, but the film is an extremely solid first live-action Pokémon film and it paves the way for many more live-action Pokémon films to come. On the whole, ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ is a wholesome, silly, fun and weirdly enjoyable adventure, with solid world-building that is complemented well by its stunning CGI.
Directed – Rob Letterman
Rated – PG
Run Time – 104 minutes