EXPECTATIONS: Something more fun and entertaining that it has any right to be.
REVIEW: The majority of videogame films are, for a lack of a better term, complete tosh. From catastrophes like Street Fighter (1994), Super Mario Bros. (1993) and most of Uwe Boll‘s filmography to films that are close to viewer satisfaction like Final Fantasy VII – Advent Children (2005), Ace Attorney (2012), Rampage (2018) and Tomb Raider (2018), the reputation of videogame films is not something you would proudly put on a pedestal.
And on from that, we get to the ever expansive Pokemon franchise. The franchise has spawned films, which have received an overall negative reception for their trite stories, pandering storytelling, repetitive action sequences and a blatant toyetic [sic] cash-grab feel.
Saddled with low expectations, we have director Rob Letterman‘s Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, that is based on the Nintendo 3DS videogame of the same name. With a talented cast of rising stars (Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton) and established thespians (Ryan Reynolds, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere), a film/animation director who has made some entertaining works (Goosebumps (2015), Monsters vs. Aliens (2009)) and the collaboration between The Pokemon Company and Toho Co. Ltd, will the film have the Pokeballs to succeed?
Smith stars as Tim Goodman, a 21-year old former Pokemon trainer now insurance appraiser, who is currently living alone and without a Pokemon to care for in the small area of Leaventown. The social stigma indicates that everyone should own a Pokemon. So when his friend (played by Karan Soni) has to trick him into capturing a Pokemon, it is understood that something about Tim is slightly off.
During his time of comfortable alienation, tragic news strikes when his father, ace detective Harry Goodman goes missing and is presumed dead. Unwilling to believe such a thing (since there was no body found), Tim travels to Ryme City, a metropolis where humans and Pokemon co-exist, thanks to the work of Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), the visionary behind it.
As Tim investigates his father’s apartment, he finds Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a spirited reporter (technically an unpaid intern) Clifford’s news company who thrives for a big story; being sick of writing Popsugar/BuzzFeed-esque articles about the “Top 10 Cutest Pokémon”. She believes that Tim’s father had stumbled upon something big during his investigation.
Tim then sees a Pokemon in the apartment, who happens to be Harry’s former Pokémon partner, wise-cracking, adorable super-sleuth Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), who suffers from amnesia. Finding that they are uniquely equipped to work together, as Tim is the only human who can talk with Pikachu, the three join forces to unravel the tangled mystery.
It is with great happiness to report that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is an adorable, fun, energetic and colourful experience that both Pokemon fans and newcomers will enjoy. One of the surprises of the film is how humble and scaled-down it feels. The low stakes, the gradual build-up in its world-building, the intimate through-line of the story and the themes behind it make the film feel refreshingly warm and cozy, in comparison to bloated blockbusters. While the story itself is no great shakes due to its predictable nature and the film does gradually become more chaotic in the third act, with a final setpiece that is part derivative/part bonkers, but the quaint feel is for the most part, appreciated.
Complimenting the small nature of the film is the buddy relationship between Tim and Pikachu. Justice Smith gives a grounded, believable performance as Tim, as he is able to play the character who deliberately downplays the wonder of seeing the fantasy that is Pokemon while conveying the trauma of his alienation; all without being a dull, party pooper of a lead. Ryan Reynolds is a joy as Pikachu and while comparisons to a kiddie-version of Deadpool (2016) are inevitable, he does lend a sweet side to the role whilst making his constant quips endearing (if not completely funny) due to how it adheres to his character. It is because of the bond between the two that the dramatic stakes work as well as it does, particularly when a poignant revelation is revealed in the conclusion.
It is a shame that the supporting characters are given the short shrift. Kathryn Newton, who was such a bright, bubbly presence in the teen-comedy Blockers (2018), is not given much to do as the intrepid reporter besides being animated (pun intended). While Rita Ora (playing essentially the Baroness von Plot Exposition role), Suki Waterhouse (in a wordless role that could’ve been played by anyone), Chris Geere (over-the-top in a brash performance) and Ken Watanabe (lending some credibility to the part) barely register in their scant amounts of screentime while Bill Nighy does the paycheck Bill Nighy performance, where he looks forlorn while intermittently exuding some much-needed presence.
In terms of the world-building, the settings and the creatures are beautifully realized on-screen. Most film adaptations of videogames or anime (and the like) are often left with choices that are double-edged when implemented. One of those choices is how fans want the entirety brought to life, which can result in egregious errors when translated to live-action. The other choice is to completely disregard the source material and come up with a version that is uniquely localized, which can result in outrage from faithful fans.
What Pokemon: Detective Pikachu does quite well is to adapt a lesser-known entry and establish a universe that compliments the Pokemon franchise, without the unfair expectations and creative restrictions that would burden the cast and crew. It is because of that decision, the film is able to succeed on its own two feet. It also does not suffer from large amounts of exposition needed to establish said world, which keeps the film down to a tight running time.
The 3D rendering of the Pokemon creatures themselves are spectacular to behold. They are given a certain sense of weight and tangibility, whilst never straying from the look of the original designs. The use of Pokemon in the film is wonderfully twisted at times, resulting in sights few would expect like the use of Mr. Mime in an interrogation scene as well as the use of Ditto in a menacing position.
The intricate and detailed production design by Nigel Phelps, the tactile and realistic cinematography by John Mathieson and especially the propulsive musical score by Henry Jackman (which manages to be respectful, retro, 8-bit and modern all at once) all compliment the immersion of the world and add to the fun, whilst downplaying the fan-service feel, because it all feels so real that you would want to live in it.
Overall, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is a vibrant bundle of joy that manages to be both a good Pokemon movie as well as a great film based on a videogame. The latter praise may not mean much, but it definitely marks a step in the right direction.
This review can be also seen at IMPULSE GAMER. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora
Director: Rob Letterman
Screenwriters: Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly, Nicole Perlman