Film Review – Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Pokémon Detective Pikachu
I’ll admit to you now, dear reader, that the world of Pokémon is a world that means very little to me. Oh sure, I was well aware of the games, tv shows, and animated movies growing up, but I never attached myself to the property as my friends did. Even today, my colleagues still gather in groups to catch Pokémon on their mobile phones. I’m fully aware of the phenomenon of the adorable creatures with superpowers, and that “catching them all” was a motto to live by. And yet, I’ve always been detached from it. So when I heard that a half CGI/half live action movie – Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019) – was set to be released, my enthusiasm barely registered a blip.
I will say this: if you are a diehard fan of all things Pokémon, then chances are you’ll find a lot to like here. Director Rob Letterman (who shares writing credits with Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Derek Connolly) stuffs this world with plenty of your favorite characters. They give ample opportunity to jam as many familiar faces into every scene – in the foreground and background – so that audience members can point at the screen and yell, “Hey look! That’s a so and so Pokémon! I recognize that!” It’s nostalgia baiting turned to eleven. This isn’t a place where a handful of creatures are scattered throughout, they are everywhere. Multiple viewings will be required for those that wish to tally every Pokémon that makes an appearance (if that’s your thing).
But besides the abundance of Lickitungs, Charmanders, Eevees, and Squirtles (if you don’t know, you better ask someone), the biggest accomplish of Detective Pikachu has to go to the production design. Ryme City, the main metropolitan area in which most of the plot takes place, is rendered as a rain-slicked, neon-lit concrete jungle. The art direction gives this place a lived in, colorful feel, as though it were born out of a neo-noir future world. This is a place where the streets are always wet even when it’s not raining, and every nook and corner feels alive. John Mathieson was a good choice as cinematographer, as his work with Ridley Scott will call to mind Blade Runner (1982), which plays as an obvious influence here.
It’s too bad that the aesthetics aren’t backed by a more intriguing story. The narrative takes a noir-style mystery approach, in which a kid named Tim (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City to investigate the circumstances that lead to his father’s disappearance. Along the way, he joins forces with his father’s Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and an aspiring journalist (Kathryn Newton) to follow the trail of clues. We’re also given a side story involving the wealthy entrepreneur Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), who founded Ryme City as a place where humans and Pokémon can live together peacefully. And let’s not forget the appearance of Mewtwo, one of the most powerful and dangerous of all Pokémon, who has an important role to play in the proceedings.
The central mystery is fairly transparent. One can deduce who is responsible for what by a simple process of elimination. About halfway in and I got a pretty good idea of how things were going to turn out. The writing and directing attempts to add more of an emotional background to Tim, detailing his life growing up without a father figure and his desire to make that connection, but those scenes are executed on a surface level. They are told mostly in flashbacks, shot with a hazy gold focus that makes it look like it came out of a Hallmark Movie of the Week.
But speaking strictly on logic, a lot of Detective Pikachu doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense. Ryme City was created so that Pokémon and humans can live together in harmony, but how exactly was this established if Pokémon and humans can’t communicate? There’s an ongoing gag where Pikachu and Tim are the only two of their kind that can understand each other, but how do other Pokémon exist and even work in Ryme City if they can’t understand what humans are saying? Is there a Pokémon translator available at all times? It seems like a wonderfully created backdrop has gone to waste when the logistics of the world don’t really operate with any specific cohesion.
Ryan Reynolds was a curious choice to voice the role of Pikachu. There’s obviously a little tongue-in-cheek action going, where a guy known to deliver quick, smart ass remarks is playing one of the cutest and most lovable of all Pokemon characters. His voice work has the same kind of self-awareness that made his performance in Deadpool (2016) work so well. The issue is that with Deadpool, Reynolds was able to cut loose and play with the character without any restrictions. Here, because he has a such a recognizable voice, we keep waiting for him to push the envelope as Pikachu, but he never gets there because the target demographic is so much younger. Having Reynolds play a watered-down version of himself does favors to nobody.
The style and story of Pokemon Detective Pikachu will certainly draw comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) which also featured animated characters interacting with a live action world. The difference is that Roger Rabbit contained memorable characters diving into an interesting central mystery. Detective Pikachu relies so heavily on fan recognition that it doesn’t take enough time to flesh out the plot or make their characters people we want stick around with. This is a movie that will play well on airplanes or while you’re doing your laundry.