Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
Remember Pokémon GO!, the augmented reality mobile app that took the world by storm in the latter part of 2016, which saw millions of users (across the globe) travel to nearby PokéStops and local Gyms to catch and battle Pokémon with online users via their smartphones? Well, take away the screens and imagine that those cute and cuddly (sometimes scary) creatures actually roamed free, and were able to be tamed, trained and captured. And that’s the setting for the first-ever live-action Pokémon film, Detective Pikachu, which takes its cues from a 2016 Nintendo 3DS video game of the same name.
As far backdrops are concerned, this is a pretty nifty setup, borrowing heavily from Robert Zemeckis’ 1988 masterwork Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which presented audiences with an alternative version of 1940s Hollywood, one where toons and humans lived side-by-side in harmony — for the most part anyway. But that’s not the only facet Detective Pikachu sponges from the Oscar-winning animation-live-action hybrid; it also adopts the whodunit formula, giving us an inventive, family-friendly urban fantasy thriller, pairing an ex-Pokémon trainer with a yellow, rosy-cheeked mouse-like pocket monster, who team up to unravel a missing persons mystery.
For those who know bupkis about the IP, Pokémon is a Japanese media sensation created by Satoshi Tajiri, the brand starting out with video games and trading cards built around fictional elemental-powered ‘animals,’ before moving into the realm of TV, spawning a long-running series (now in its 22nd season) and twenty odd animated films. Since its genesis in 1996, Pokémon has become a cross-cultural, multi-generational phenomenon. This new film, however, chooses to focus on the property’s most iconic character, an electric-type Pokémon known as a Pikachu, who’s brought to life by Deadpool himself, Mr. Ryan Reynolds, providing the voice and facial motion capture for the titular tyke. And although Reynolds’ raucous vocals may initially feel like a disconnect, rubbing against the furball’s cutsie outer shell, his flagrant mouthiness punches up the pint-sized private eye, unveiling what a PG-13 Wade Wilson could potentially sound like.
Our story trails 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), an insurance clerk/ former Pokémon trainer who’s summoned to the big smoke after his PI father, Harry, disappears following a freak car accident. Goodman, you see, comes from a different side of town, one where Pokémon live out in the wilderness and are hunted by wannabe Pokémon Masters, who collect the creatures to use in duels. This crushing news, however, leads Tim to Ryme City, a bustling ultra-modern metropolis where man and Pokémon have learned to peacefully coexist, this utopia — think an amalgamation of NYC, Tokyo, and London — the dream and design of visionary billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy).
After sorting out Harry’s affairs, Tim heads to his dad’s studio to gather some belongings — he’s presumed dead by his estranged son — coming face-to-face with a diminutive talking Pikachu in a deerstalker cap, who, apart from having a major caffeine addiction, reveals himself to be his father’s former partner, the critter losing his memory in the crash that supposedly claimed Harry’s life. Naturally, Tim is a little startled to hear a Pikachu speak — as far as Pokémon go, they’re pretty linguistically limited — but Sparky soon convinces the kid that his father may very well still be alive and that together (Tim can hear the Pika and the Pika can talk to other Pokémon) they can solve the disappearance. And so, the two set off to find the whereabouts of Goodwin senior, stumbling on a shocking revelation that could rock the entire foundation of the Pokémon world.
First and foremost, Detective Pikachu, while certainly catering its core audience (the fans), is never alienating, meaning that anyone who knows zilch about Pokémon can easily follow along — prior product knowledge is not a must. Credit goes to the film’s writers — director Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly, and The Tick (2019) producers Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, with story assist from Nicole Perlman — who have fashioned a narrative that’s faithful to the source yet accessible to newbies, superbly capturing the essence and DNA of the games/ anime.
While the story doesn’t go anywhere mind-blowing, moviemakers playing it relatively safe — it’s more or less just a buddy cop film littered with Pokémon — there’s hardly a dull moment. Scribes Hernandez and Samit are clearly no strangers to quirky comedy, injecting the picture with some wildly eccentric set pieces, while contributions from Connolly, Jurassic World (2015), and Perlman, Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), each having penned effects heavy epics prior, serve in providing grandiosity and edge — so it feels like a big summer blockbuster.
If there’s one major setback it would have to be the convoluted plot, which is far too twisty for minors — there are simply too many crooks and turns to register, while the hard-bitten detective patter does become a tad adult-y at times, and then there’s the climax, which is a bit too scary (but then again, Roger Rabbit was pretty dark). Fortunately, the cast of adorable creatures and vivid action scenes are designed to distract younger audiences; the highlight here is a neat kid-friendly ‘good cop, bad cop’ act that pokes fun at Pokémon Mr. Mime. And, really, if you stop to think about it, the big-bad’s endgame doesn’t make a lick of sense either.
It’s also mildly frustrating that diehards only get to see one all-out monster-on-monster skirmish, this energetic, hard-hitting sequence the film’s clear showstopper — watching the chubby rodent-like ‘Detective Pikachu’ take on a grizzled, fire-breathing third-evolution Charizard is all sorts of awesome, the sequence brilliantly punctuated by a gaggle of Loudreds, who drop some seriously sick beats. There’s also a great little moment where a furious Cubone escapes from a standard red, white and black Pokéball, which, sadly, is the only Monster Ball we get to see in the entire film.
On that, fanboys will go gaga over the plethora of Pokémon populating the neon-lit streets of Ryme City — see if you can spot a slumbering Snorlax or a four-armed Machamp directing traffic. The sight of a squad of Squirtles helping some firemen put out a blaze had me grinning from ear to ear. And if it’s action you’re after, filmmakers treat us to a handful of highly imaginative set pieces; there’s a forest fight with a gang of gnarly Greninjas, which concludes with a ground-breaking discovery, an apartment/ rooftop pursuit that features an unusually volatile troop of Aipom, and an exhilarating areal showdown, pitting our heroes against the menacing humanoid Mewtwo.
What makes each of these sections so thrilling is the savvy and know-how of director Rob Letterman, who cut his moviemaking teeth helming animated features for Dreamworks, with Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) and Shark Tale (2004) being his first two films. This guy knows how to structure a story around CG characters, having also adapted the 2015 live-action Goosebumps. So unsurprisingly, the interaction between the digital beasties and humans is pretty flawless, the photorealistic Pokémon inspired by the gorgeous artwork of RJ Palmer (who was recruited to work on the film as a concept artist), rendered in stunning detail by the skilled VFX team. Moreover, the world of Detective Pikachu has been coated in a funky film-noir flavor, Ryme City a bizarre blend of Eastern-style cyberpunk, its dripping wet streets, smoky alleyways, and neon glows reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). It kinda shouldn’t work, but it somehow does.
On things that shouldn’t work, Ryan Reynolds wholly steals the show as the lil’ lightning bolt-shaped tail hero, imbuing Pikachu with Capital A Attitude — we all know that Reynolds has serious wit and a knack for this type of comedy, throwing out quips that appeal to both grownups and young’uns. Justice Smith, Paper Towns (2015), does great work here as protagonist Tim, hammering all the humor as well as the pathos — this is probably his best performance to date. Kathryn Newton, Blockers (2018), is okay as aspiring reporter Lucy Stevens, who teams up with Tim to crack the case, even if her headache-prone sidekick, Psyduck, leaves more of a dent. Ken Watanabe, Inception (2010), Deadpool’s Karan Soni, and the ever-watchable Suki Waterhouse, The Bad Batch (2016), also crop up, each given mere scraps of screen time, while Pokémon buffs will totally delight in the crafty casting of Ikue Ōtani, who provides Pikachu’s ‘pikapika’ dialogue, which is heard by everyone other than Justice Smith, the same actress that voices the character in the animated telly series, movies and games.
Exploring paternity, largely the bond that exists between father and son, Detective Pikachu is a film about connection, elevated by rich world-building, roller-coaster action, and some cool-looking Pokémon. There’s a spoiler-y last-minute revelation which I dug, that could potentially divide audiences, but this is pretty standard big-budget filmmaking for the most part. While far from perfect, Detective Pikachu has enough bells and whistles to warrant a watch — who knows, it might even hit you right in the jellies. For Pokémon addicts, though, gotta catch this in theatres!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner