It’s Time For A World Class Detective
Set in a world where Pokemon and humans co-exist, we are introduced to Tim Goodman [Smith], a young insurance salesman who turned his back on the world of Pokemon due to the death of his mother and absence of his father, Harry – a detective working in the sprawling metropolis of Ryme City. Tim’s fairly mundane existence is disrupted when he learns that his father has died during an investigation. Tim heads to Ryme City to collect the personal effects of his estranged father but is drawn into the investigation when he meets Lucy Stevens [Newton], a click-bait-columnist who dreams of investigative journalism and a Pikachu in a deerstalker who Tim can understand verbatim.
The first thing to acknowledge is that while this movie generates a fair amount of lore (and rather interestingly seems to tie-in with the original animated series canon) it doesn’t devote a great deal of time to dryly expositing about what Pokemon are. Subsequently, those familiar with the property will get significantly more out of the film than those who are newly initiated but there is still plenty of charm and abounding cuteness for the casual viewer. A lot of this comes down to the fact that this movie is relatively a straightforward fun romp that revels in the playground it is afforded. More than that, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu captures that same magic present in the various games of world-building, creating something an audience would want to belong to – akin to franchises like Star Wars and Harry Potter, etc – and starts conversations among fans about what Pokemon would be their companion, what job they would like to do in this universe, which Pokemon they would like to see represented in future instalments. Admittedly, this level of fanaticism has always been present and has eked out further into the public consciousness over the last twenty years through games, shows and recently the mobile app, Pokemon Go but the leap into multi-million dollar filmmaking has the power to not only invigorate the established fan base but to cast a wider net of support and interest in the property. So even before we discuss the merits of the film itself, it’s already done its job acting as one big advert for the licence.
Leaving the branding talk for a moment, this is a very technically sound feature. The initial reaction was mixed but unsurprising, owing to the attempt to make photo-realistic incarnations of fictional creatures. One of the smartest moves by the production team was shooting on film and utilising a combination of puppetry and CGI to create something eerily realistic; replicating the methods of the first Jurassic Park film. All the detailed, layered and bustling shots illustrate that clear care, attention and respect for the source material has been taken but when we are introduced to a creature outside of the central cast, there can be a significant dose of uncanny-valley wavering that spoils the illusion. An example of this would be the colossal Torterra set-piece which starts on a mind-blowing scale before resolving itself extremely quickly and proves the entire sequence was little more than an excuse for CGI action without actual consequence. In addition to the visuals, the audio work performs admirably, the sound design and mixing are pleasant and Henry Jackman’s score being a mix of video game inspired themes and genre-expected orchestral tones offers a welcome balance.
Detective Pikachu walks a fine line between trying to be dark, gritty and grounded at the same time as fun, light, colourful and cartoony; a dichotomy that will conjure a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? parallels for older viewers. In an essence, the film simultaneously treats the content seriously but is aware that kids are the primary demographic so avoids taking itself too seriously and this is a key difference. The film never condescends or talks down to its target audience; there is a distinct absence of dance numbers and pop culture references (excluding the central conceit) and feels more like an 80s/90s family feature than the post-Shrek formula we have seen repeated ad nauseam. This level of pseudo-maturity has allowed the writers to slip in some references to contemporary issues of equality, feminism, integrity of news and the environment, which in of itself is fantastic, but as they are delivered wholly without subtlety, the messages feel a little stunted and disposable; much like the 80s cartoon sign-offs instructing children to avoid the perils of drugs. As a counterpoint, despite the various progressive messages, the story heavily relies on the tired trope of a disabled villain, which is a tragic and easily avoidable misstep.
Keeping the narrative character-focused, the usual Pokemon Trainer trekking through the landscape, finding various creatures before entering a tournament story and, subsequently, a larger scale is missing but this probably helped make the film more palatable for newly initiated. At the same time, the movie attempts to sample this in the underground fight club scene and hoping for a positive reaction to this, will likely build on it in future (especially as it has been at the forefront of a significant portion of the marketing). One aspect I have avoided discussing up until this point is the characters and that is because they are fairly simple and frankly dumb. Far from stilted, the performances aren’t as terrible as some would make out but they are certainly one of the weakest elements. Tim’s story is very vanilla and Smith’s portrayal of him is just as flat as his character in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Kathryn Newton as plucky up-and-coming reporter Lucy Stevens is much more interesting and feels very much like a video game NPC brought to life but as much as she displays a degree of skill and competence in her role, the plot does tend to unfold for the leads quite conveniently and without any lasting ramifications. But again, this is something present in films like ET, The Goonies and Flight Of The Navigator and clearly something being heavily emulated for nostalgia purposes, relying on a combination of charm, nostalgia and fantasy to see you through to the close.
**spoilers abound throughout this paragraph**
As much as I enjoyed this film, it has a plethora of problems, most notably the entire third act which is horribly cliché and uneven. The big reveal that Howard is actually the central antagonist was obvious very early on, as was the method of defeating him, thanks to some uninspired dialogue from Howard himself stating that he can transfer his consciousness to Mewtwo while leaving his body vulnerable and unguarded. It’s the kind of quick fix that is remarkably lazy and has no place in modern cinema for an audience of any age. And this simplicity is a truly double-edged sword, allowing for a light approachable fun feature but generating huge plot holes and stale exchanges. The aforementioned charm cannot supplant this insufficient depth, leading to a rather flat but strangely satisfying conclusion despite the heavily signposted twists. What’s more, the ending seemingly shuts out a direct copy and paste sequel by establishing that the status quo would not remain. I found this a genuinely interesting move and one that could highlight the potential future direction the studio could take the franchise in.
The bar for video game adaptations has been incredibly low and while Detective Pikachu makes many of the same mistakes committed by every other attempt (incorporating the flaws from the source material and alienating newcomers) it somehow manages to come out standing, having earned enough respect from all swathes of demographics to warrant returning to this property but owing to how the film ends, it will be interesting to see if we will see a genre-shift or if this magic can even be captured for a second time.
10th May 2019
The Scene To Look Out For:
I’m going to briefly highlight the Mr Mime scene for two simple reasons. Firstly Mr Mime was the source of a lot of flak in the trailers due to the outrage about the Pokemon skin textures. When finally watching this on a big screen, any fears or concerns I had were allayed; sure it’s a little unsettling and weird but it’s a four foot mime creature, nothing about it is conventional. Secondly, part of the film walking that line between cute and dark is in this scene. Tim and Pikachu interrogate Mr Mime for information and a handful of mime gags ensue, mostly telling our heroes to get lost. But then things take a weird turn when Tim mimes dowsing the creature in gasoline and lighting several matches. Especially as the joke ends with, what I can only assume, is a dead Mr Mime, whose belief in the improv sends him into a psychosomatic cardiac arrest.
This is a little tricky as I nobody stood out as decidedly impressive or an impediment to the film as a whole; there were definite areas for improvement but nothing ruined the experience. I felt Ken Watanabe was criminally underused and Nighy was limited by his chair but the biggest head-scratch is Ryan Reynolds. He is absolutely serviceable as Pikachu and by the end of the film, it’s very clear why he was chosen but I still don’t think there was anything specific about Reynolds’ performance that was unique to him and, as much as I want to resist writing this, ultimately felt like a studio/producer’s note about the success of Deadpool.
“It’s not news if it can’t be verified”
In A Few Words:
“An upbeat, energetic and competent adaptation that understands its core audience while providing enough light-hearted entertainment for the uninitiated”