Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a Critical Hit
Director: Rob Letterman Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe Running Time: 104 minutes
It’s 2000 and you’re nine and you’re waiting in line at the cinema for Pokémon: The First Movie. You’re loaded up on sugar and Burger King and immeasurable excitement. Pokémon is a global phenomenon in spite of how it baffles anyone who’s five years older than you or more, you’ve been freebasing a cocktail of video games, toys and cartoons for the last year or so and you think it’s the most amazing thing imaginable. As far as your nine year old understanding of art and culture goes, “: The Movie” of The Thing is the ultimate elevation, the crowning glory of entertainment and so you’re pretty sure this is going to be the biggest and best movie of all time. And imagine. It’s only the first one. You look at the poster and it has, like, every Pokémon on it. Incredible. Mewtwo and Mew square off in the centre and you can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like when they finally fight. Your brother looks like you must look, like he’s about to explode from the excitement of it all. Your mother looks like she’d rather be anywhere else. Philistine. And then the screen opens up. And you go in.
It was fine?
…was it even fine?
You’re only nine and you are so ready and willing to love this movie and there were certainly fun bits, certainly moments where it seemed to be giving you exactly what you wanted, but now its over and all that anticipation and excitement has left you and there hasn’t really been anything left in its place. You don’t feel disappointed, exactly, but there is something nagging at you. Surely life isn’t so cynical that it would lure you into a cinema screen, distract you by having your favourite characters bounce around for two hours doing nothing of much importance, stick in a dumb, even contradictory moral at the end and shoo you out until they’re ready to show you The Next Movie? You may not have felt exactly like this in 2000. Or when you were nine. You may have felt like this at some stage though. Maybe even recently. We all get sold on the biggest and the best and the phenomenon and we all end up in that moment when the anticipation has departed. If you take these things too seriously you feel like you have to explain, in so many words, why something nagged at you or not, or your delight when the excitement pays off, or your sense of betrayal when it doesn’t. Before you know it you go into school one day and no one thinks Pokémon is cool anymore. Nobody gave you the heads up about this.
It’s 2019 and you spend your own money on movies that are only fine now so at least your mother is less disappointed. It turns out that life actually is so cynical, sometimes, but mostly you’re still pretty ready and willing to love movies. You’re the one who gets baffled by the weird things they try to sell kids these days, and then you see them announce a pretty baffling thing: a movie where Pikachu is a detective. And he talks. There’s a part of you, somewhere in the place where that anticipation and excitement used to be, that knows that it’s just a regular Pikachu with a stupid, cheap hat. He still embodies all the awful commercialism he did before.
But he’s got a new hat!
As relatively left-field as turning Pikachu into The Third ‘Mon and giving him Deadpool’s voice might seem on first glance, this adaptation of the source material clearly benefits from having plenty of thought put into it from the early going. Taking the Pokémon themselves and the general idea of how they work while dashing the threadbare story and human characters to the rocks, Pokémon Detective Pikachu understands its audience both young and old. Screenwriter Nicole Perlman, who had done a lot of unheralded work in making the weird world of Guardians of the Galaxy work on-page, is one of a number of writers given a story credit, while director Rob Letterman has described spending a year working on designing the characters and the world for their on-screen look. They and other decision-makers here avoid the massive pitfalls that properties like this so often fall into; trying to make the material “make sense”, second-guessing what works about things that are already successful, a descent into madness that leads us to the terrifying Sonic the Toothhog. Pokémon might not make a lick of sense, but it’s the highest-grossing media franchise of all time; if you get it, you get it, and Detective Pikachu has the confidence to build around what its audience knows and want, rather than hide them away. The movie’s Rhyme City, a neon-glazed metroplis where Pokémon live side by side with people instead of fighting, is a sprawling, living, exciting setting, as realised a vision offscreen as it is onscreen by its creator Henry Clifford. Waxing lyrically and ludiscrously about the nature of these monsters, Clifford’s actor Bill Night has likewise become as enamoured with the Pokémon concept as his character has, and who can’t find that infectious when it’s presented this well?
An otherwise simple film, an action adventure with a joke at least once per page, a few set pieces and a story about family and being who you are, going with the madness is what gives Detective Pikachu its undeniable charm, the spark that puts it above other movies of this type as it shoots past the oddity of having cartoon monsters interacting with real people all the way into the absolute insanity of having those characters mime Basic Instinct references or talk about how people are always “putting their fingers in me”. It feels like a mad dream, a hallucination, a movie where Rita Ora plays a scientist and villains dress up like Milo Yiannopoulos. If nothing else, it’s undoubtedly a stark contrast to getting exactly what you thought you wanted 20 years ago and feeling a bit empty, this is something that you never could have expected and it’s all the better for it.
Too much of that Ryan Reynolds’ brand of comedy would have been insufferable and inappropriate for this franchise, but somehow he’s a great fit as a two-foot electric mouse with a deerstalker hat and a caffeine addiction. Brash and dumb, but affable, Reynolds always makes a better Kurt Russell than he does a Jim Carey, and his role here is further evidence of that. As with Deadpool, his commitment goes a long way, and the story choice to give his little Gumchu a lost memory, though it isn’t the most original story beat, actually helps to reign in the potential for Reynolds’ obnoxiousness. He’s unsure and eager to figure things out, closer to your Paddingtons on the earnest CGI character scale. He’s good-hearted, he’s pure. He is, as they say, the absolute boy. The only thing that Pikachu does remember is his partnership with police partner Henry Goodman, and though the Goodman is supposedly gone, Pikachu doesn’t buy it, so he enlists the help of son Tim Goodman to crack the case, a twisty mystery involving a dangerous gas, an underground fighting ring, a too-benevolent-to-be-true corporation (aren’t they all?) and the looming spectre of Mewtwo. Despite a number of favourable comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Tim isn’t quite on the Eddie Valiant level of resenting the cuddly characters in his life, but he’s left behind the childish things of Pokémon and has longstanding feelings of abandonment from his father, so at first he doesn’t take to his yammering sidekick, whom only he can understand. Being called “kid” and getting bossed around by a cuddly toy would probably anyone off even if they weren’t processing difficult childhood experiences at the time, but Pikachu’s good nature, his efforts to connect with Tim and the fact that he is, like, really adorable leaves it never in doubt that Tim will come around and ensure these two will make a great crime-fighting team. A simple but effective story about re-connection ensues, filtered through a classic buddy cop team up: one’s a risk averse insurance salesman, the other is an electric monster mouse. Standard stuff.
Justice Smith, briefly seen last year yelping his way through Jurassic World – Fallen Kingdom, has a neurotic sitcom character vibe that works well here, with a frantic energy and good chemistry with Reynolds/the toilet paper tube with tennis balls stuck to it standing where Detective Pikachu is going to be. Another relative newcomer Kathryn Newton makes an impression with a too-small role as Lucy Stevens an aspiring reporter with a relatably perma-stressed Psyduck. Newton hits the exact overlap between earnest anime character and plucky journalist, Misty by way of Gracie Law. All of the human players here are occupied in some way or another by the idea of evolution, of growing and becoming stronger and leaving the old version of yourself behind. You can almost understand why someone might covet that which comes naturally to Pokémon. There’s nothing groundbreaking in Detective Pikachu’s story, there isn’t always a lot of external logic, but everything on screen is rooted in the relationship between human and Pokémon, meaning that the plot, the character and the themes are all synced from beginning to end, a quality all too rare in modern blockbusters, even the good ones.
In a time of blockbuster-by-committee, where action scenes are assembled before directors are even brought on board, it’s that brimming enthusiasm that shines through. The actors are certainly engaged, and so too is cinematographer John Mathieson, a veteran with films including Gladiator and Logan under his belt, shooting here on location and on film in 35mm to give a setting already primed to look unnatural a grounded look, the better for the Pokémon to pops. Their computer effects are better on the eye under the grain of film, while holding the vivid colours both of the city and its inhabitants. Working with Mathieson, enlivening his actors, and teaming closely and comprehensively with the Pokémon Company on this concept, director Rob Letterman does solid work in the collaborative challenges posed by films of this size.
With their basic rock-paper-scissors fighting style, forgiving difficulty-level and playground friendly (parents wallets unfriendly) trading mechanics, the Pokémon games function in some ways as a My First RPG, a gateway to gaming that remains engaging even to older players. Detective Pikachu works similarly as a Junior Genre movie, structurally sound in the screenplay and inventive in its influences, grabbing excitedly from as wide a range as Big Trouble in Little China, Howard the Duck, Batman, Roger Rabbit, The Thin Man and Get Out , a wired and inspired cinematic moodboard as you’re ever going to see. Cute, comfortably buckwild and committed to its source material, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is an accessible but bonkers film that’s super effective for all-ages. It feels like vindication, like something instead of nothing, like waiting in line again after you’ve exited.(4 / 5)