Propelled forward by Ryan Reynolds' charismatic performance, "Pokémon: Detective Pikachu" is a sterling first attempt at a live-action incarnation of this beloved world.
If you’re of the millennial generation or Gen-Z, chances are that your childhood involved a healthy dose of Pokémon. Whether it was on the fringes of your social interactions or an intrinsic part of your day-to-day life, there was a time when the handheld worlds of these mythic yet endearing creatures was ubiquitous in popular culture. Cherished by adults and adolescents alike, the Japanese realm of “pocket monsters” has nurtured such a retained prescience in all corners of the globe that it’s now estimated to be the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. A staple in video games and anime since 1996 and 1997 respectively, their tried-and-tested formula for success within these formats goes some way to explain why it’s taken until 2019 for a live-action Pokémon movie to hit the silver screen. As illustrated by misadventures such as Dragonball: Evolution, Assassin’s Creed and countless others, transposing the lore and far-reaching worlds of these mediums of entertainment has proven to be a delicate alchemy to perfect. Blessed and cursed with audiences that feel a deep-seated devotion to the sights and sounds of their childhood, anime and video game adaptations very seldom equal or even come close to the lofty expectations that the fanbases carry. However, it’s something that those who’ve been playing since generation 1 or were transfixed by the adventures of Ash, Brock & Misty needn’t be reticent about.
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Helmed by Rob Letterman-- Monsters & Aliens, Shark Tale and Gulliver’s Travels-- this daring project centres around Tim Goodman, an insurance appraiser that had left his youthful aspirations of becoming a Pokémon Trainer behind him. After the disappearance of his estranged father, he reluctantly makes the trip to his seemingly deceased parent’s residence in Ryme City. Upon entering his father’s apartment, he soon encounters a wisecracking Pikachu with a razor-sharp wit that only he can understand. Waylaid by a case of amnesia, this talkative lightning type-- and his comical over-reliance on coffee-- convinces Tim to help him delve into the inconsistencies and mystery that his father’s alleged demise is shrouded in. Set in a utopian paradise where Pokémon and humans live side-by-side, this apparent exemplar of coexistence was founded by Howard Clifford. The CEO of the monolithic CMN corporation, he is presented as a benevolent, Darwinian figure that is only interested in the prosperity of both species and enhancing human-Pokémon relations. Yet as the plot unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that something untoward is afoot and it all hinges around the emergence of an illicit substance known as “R.” A tale of subterfuge and intrigue, to define the main plotline as a "mystery" would be a stretch-- it takes little more than a few seconds of cogent thought for it to unravel, but it’s more than enough to keep audience engaged. Amid all of the controversy around the beguiling horrors of live-action Sonic the Hedgehog, it’s a relief that the world of Detective Pikachu is nothing short of a veritable feast for the eyes. Whether scaled, furry or gilled, each Pokémon seems tangibly real and sidesteps the childhood-besmirching efforts of their Sega counterparts.
Aside from circumventing the uncanny valley, the effects team have also done a great job in distinguishing each Pokémon and highlighting the idiosyncrasies that had us rushing for those game-link cables back in the day. As for the range of pocket monsters that Tim and Pikachu encounter, the filmmakers have clearly made a concerted effort to incorporate beloved figures from across its canon. Whether interacted with or steeped in its lusciously-realized environment, fans are treated to stunningly rendered takes on Charizard, Charmander, Gengar, Eevee, Bulbasaur, Machamp, Primeape, Magikarp, Gyarados, Ludicolo and a fleet of mischievous Aipom among many others. Although every Pokémon is eyecatching and faithful to the source material, the crowning glories come in the deceptively dangerous Psyduck and an inspired use roguish shapeshifter Ditto while a fully anthropomorphized Mr Mime puts in a scene-stealing performance that pokes gentle fun at the ludicrousness of his central premise. As the trailers had alluded to, Reynolds’ Pikachu is the indisputable star of the show here. Bursting with that snarky charisma that he implanted on Deadpool, he manages to provide some emotional heft when needed and even sneaks in a couple of gags that teeter towards the PG-13 territory. Featuring a cameo from Diplo and Rita Ora, Justice Smith’s portrayal of the reluctantly heroic Tim is handled capably but is clunky in places. Through no discernible fault of her own, Kathryn Newton’s character of Lucy Stevens is one of the film’s less admirably fleshed out aspects of the film. Positioned as an unpaid intern at CMN that yearns to be an investigate reporter, her continued use as a source of exposition or plot device makes it feel as though she was created to make up for shortcomings in the writing team’s ability to interweave its story elements together while doubling as a love interest that’s been shoehorned in for good measure.
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Billed as the first of a minimum of two live-action films, this adventure’s cloak-and-dagger nature means that it is relatively scant in terms of the momentous battles that we’ve become acquainted with in Pokémon lore. With that said, the fleeting scenes of combat make it clear that a more action-centric film would be well within their power in the future. With most of the high-stakes moments confined to the third act, its final 20 minutes teaches us that aspects of Ryme City’s alleged ethos of harmony have been compromised and manages to make a very coherent point about the intrepid dangers of human entitlement. Introduced via a legendary Pokémon that long-time fans will be well-acquainted with, its climactic moments provide us with a twist that is somewhat unanticipated but consequentially creates a few glaring issues in regards to pre-established logic in the movie. However, it’s always important to remember that this film is aimed at a younger demographic than those who grew up with the franchise and thus it’s important to take the inner-workings of its world with a pinch of salt.
Overall, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a fun-filled caper that goes way beyond fan-service and agilely leaps over the obstacles that befell many well-intentioned filmmakers in the treacherous world of video-game/anime adaptations. Anchored by Reynolds’ magnetism and the immersive feel of its CGI-infused world, the film would be enjoyable for those left dewy-eyed by nostalgia and the more ambivalent alike. A worthy addition to a celebrated franchise, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is accomplished while not taking itself too seriously. Provided that you bear this in mind and do the same, good times await.