‘Pokémon: Detective Pikachu’s’ Serviceable Mystery Shows Promise for the Future

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(2019—Director: Rob Letterman)

— by Renard N. Bansale

★★★
(out of 5 stars)

“Should I talk about the fact that your childhood bed is a Pikachu bed? … “It’s a coincidence.” … “I’ve never been so flattered and creeped out at the same time.” — Det. Pikachu (voiced and facial motion captured by Ryan Reynolds) and Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) 

Potential spoilers below

“I wanna be the very best / Like no one ever was…”

Like many kids during the late 1990s and early 2000s, I was enraptured by the global media phenomenon from Japan known as Pokémon. My older brother and I managed to stick through three generations of its main Game Boy console series and two generations of its anime television and film series, before we lost interest in following them further. (My older brother still occasionally and casually plays between those three game generations, and I sometimes imagine myself doing likewise without much difficulty sometime in the future.) The games, despite their perennial premise amid advancing graphics and gameplay, have locked onto the accessible intrigue of competitive critter collecting that lead designers Satoshi Tajiri and Ken Sugimori envisioned from the start.

The anime of the first few generations, meanwhile, now tends toward time capsule kitsch in retrospect, at least in its adaptation for North American audiences. (In Japan, promoting a narrative universe across media platforms—novel to manga to small- and big-screen anime and sometimes video games—is the norm. Most audiences elsewhere view each medium as largely separate from each other.) The movies, furthermore, come off as extended episodes that alienate non-fans of the franchise, as critics resoundingly felt towards 1998’s The First Movie—Mewtwo Strikes Back. While I personally remain fond of second entry The Movie 2000’s epic scale and can agree that 3: The Movie’s plot is an improvement on its predecessors, I totally understand how Pokémon wouldn’t work as a film franchise if it held closely to either the anime or the video game’s set structure.

Relative to its late ‘90s/early ‘00s halcyon days, 2016 proved a momentous year for Pokémon. The augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go was released in July and became a short-lived worldwide smash that, nevertheless, continues to this day with (as of May 2018) a stable 147 million active monthly users. A few months earlier that year, the release relevant to this review emerged—Detective Pikachu for the Nintendo 3DS. Despite middling reviews, many noted how the story could at last lend itself to a standalone spinoff that wouldn’t outright exclude non-fans. Optimism for adapting Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (hereafter shortened to Det. Pikachu) into a feature, however, soon leads to its own obstacles: How do you appease both the fans of this recent Pokémon resurgence and older, nostalgic fans of the franchise’s heyday at the same time? Where can you find the intersection between freshness and nostalgia? For writer-director Rob Letterman and his six fellow story/screenwriting team members, the answer to that question is to pump out a brisk and adequate mystery adventure with mostly impressive visual effects whose main pull is casting Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds in the title role.

Such a casting certainly has its benefits, though. Reynolds adds new flavor to the franchise’s adorable mascot with his spunk, snark, and penchant for coffee. Beyond him, moreover, the visual effects (supervised by Erik Nordby, Beau Garcia, and Bryan Litson) succeed quite well in having realistic-looking Pokémon inhabit a live action world, and the actors never flag in convincing you that they’re interacting with these imaginary creatures. In that department, main human star Justice Smith perhaps deserves the most credit for holding his own throughout the film’s 104-minute runtime. Smith, Reynolds, and writer-director Letterman with his crew handle the two scenes involving Mr. Mime in particular with great comedic success.

It disappoints, then, how the rest of the mystery plot mostly goes through the motions. Mere glimpses into Tim’s troubled past and unpromising present at the movie’s start ought to have been expanded to allow for greater investment in his character. Ken Watanabe as Det. Lt. Hideo Yoshida is horribly underused. Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens gets introduced in such a pushy manner that I struggle to buy her quiet emotional scenes later on. The choices for the true antagonist are limiting with scant anticipation. Lastly, the story’s twists become quick to figure out, and where one twist gets revealed in increments, it only does so thanks to plot convenience. The whole film, come to think of it, ends up like a watered-down live action Zootopia (see also #6 here) of sorts. What gets watered down? The exhaustive survey of its expansive metropolis setting, a host of quirky and distinctive characters with scenes where they can live and breathe, well-tracked and exhaustive plot progressions and pivots, and a timely message held back just enough from feeling imposing. Det. Pikachu, at 104 minutes, comes off severely fleeting compared to the 108-minute Disney buddy crime adventure.

Writer-director Rob Letterman may have had 2015’s Goosebumps to pick himself up from his time at DreamWorks Animation, but that was a less popular franchise that took to modest success the most ideal big-screen adaptation option of teaming its host of macabre villains together. Modesty isn’t enough for Pokémon, which demands a deep-seated passion for its universe. Perhaps Det. Pikachu’s saving grace is that, unlike most franchise startups nowadays, it chose to undershoot rather than overshoot with its ambitions. One can give a curt nod at its serviceable mystery narrative and look instead at the sprawling world it introduces and to the realistic-looking Pokémon creatures inhabiting it as pathways for future stories. Still, one standalone spinoff feature done well would have been better than an unlikely rise to “pretty good” with a handful of installments. I don’t know how the planned sequel (reportedly with Oren Uziel as screenwriter) will turn out or whether others will follow it. (I myself have a Pokémon-related feature idea that I hope gets produced one day.) What I do know, and what I hope never occurs, is that it’d be a shame if the world of pop culture looks back on this first Det. Pikachu as the Pokémon franchise’s last hurrah. 

(Parental Note: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu has been rated PG by the MPAA “for action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements”. It is also rated PG by the BBFC for “mild fantasy threat” and rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “considerable stylized violence, a couple of mild oaths, vague sexual and drug-related jokes, and a bit of scatological humor.”)

(Plot Summary: 21-year-old former aspiring Pokémon trainer and small town insurance appraiser Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) learns that his estranged father Harry, a veteran Ryme City police detective, has had a devastating car accident and is now missing, presumed dead. Setting off for the human and Pokémon utopian metropolis to look for him, Tim encounters his father’s Pokémon partner—a wise-cracking and adorable Pikachu (voiced and facial motion captured by Ryan Reynolds) whose human-like speech only Tim can understand. With the help of ambitious news intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck, Tim and Det. Pikachu attempt to retrace Det. Harry’s unfinished investigation around the source of a Pokémon-aggravating gas compound called “R” as well as rumors of Pokémon experimentation at an out-of-city facility involving the prehistoric Pokémon Mew.)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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