Pokemon is one of the biggest video game brands in history. As of 2017, it was the third best selling video game franchise in the history of the medium, behind Mario and Tetris. Its first generation of games, manufactured in 1996 for the Nintendo handheld console, the Game Boy, sold over 45,000,000 units.
The franchise quickly ballooned into a trans-media synergy that encompassed animated television shows, animated movies, trading cards, toys, and more video game installments. In a sense, it is a surprise that it has taken this long for The Pokemon Company to pull the trigger on a live-action film of its titular product.
Then again, there was the Super Mario Bros. movie.
The stigma against video game adaptations to film is widely known. For whatever reason, few quality films based on video game properties exist. There is something missed in the relatively passive experience of watching a film in a theater, perhaps.
But the world-building of Pokemon is something seemingly perfect for the screen. It is built into the company’s business model, after all. Each new generation of Pokemon game introduces a new “region” to explore and adds anywhere from 100-150 new pocket monster creatures to discover. And their ambitious Pokemon Go app brought the immersion of a Pokemon world to the real-world.
Not only does this business model create a world of immersion ripe for big screen adaptation, but it also harnesses something pretty darn close to a four-quadrant audience. Now-adult millennials have nostalgia for the handheld games. An audience of gen Z youth, as well as adult players, have played Pokemon Go. The property doesn’t quite have the 25+ age bracket appeal that something like the new Star Wars slate does, in which parents transfer their nostalgia onto their children. But children who love Pokemon will inevitably drag their parents along for the ride, whether they enjoy the film or not.
So Detective Pikachu, a narrative adapted from the Nintendo 3DS game of the same name, is, on paper, a great move.
The film follows a young man named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who travels to the eccentric Ryme City upon hearing of his father’s untimely demise. In Ryme City, Pokemon and human live in harmony. Pokemon in this city are not held in Poke-Balls or forced to battle one another by Pokemon trainers, as is the norm in the Pokemon video games.
Tim is ready to clear out his father’s apartment and move back home to his Grams when the apartment is broken into by a tiny invader, a Pikachu in a detective cap. Tim confronts the Pokemon, only to realize that he can understand the pocket monster’s speech. For those not familiar with the Pokemon lore, this is very strange, as when Pokemon speak humans only hear that Pokemon’s name.
This Pikachu speaks with the voice of Ryan Reynolds, and boy is it off-putting. Sure, the Pikachu has some personality. He loves drinking coffee. He gets distracted easily, and his memory is lacking. He wears a cute hat.
But Reynolds’ voice acting is strange, mainly in that it is not a voice acting performance. Reynolds simply uses his own voice. Yes, Reynolds’ awareness of this is cheeky, as illustrated in the various YouTube videos he released as promotional content for the film. But that doesn’t make his performance better. It also doesn’t help that most of the jokes written for him are lacking.
At least the film has Justice Smith, who brings emotional depth to his character. Tim’s arc is simplistic; in short: father issues and reluctance to emotionally connect with others must be reconciled in order to save the day. Nothing too novel here, but Smith provides Tim with dimension. In a movie where every other character is an archetype performed with a plate full of ham, Smith pleasantly stands out.
While the story of Detective Pikachu is nothing new or exciting (and, frankly, some of the narrative beats near the end are logically questionable), the noir-style detective work has its moments of charm. Tim and Pikachu uncovering clues makes the first half of the film exciting and fun. It is the resolution of the case that causes issues.
Unfortunately, the visual displays in the film do not live up to the potential laid out by the character models. As witnessed in the film’s trailer, the CG designs of the Pokemon in Ryme City are rather phenomenal. Populating this noir city (think Blade Runner cityscapes) with cuddly-looking creatures that integrate well with the human components is a feat of visual effects, and it adds to the aforementioned audience immersion.
When these Pokemon are tasked with engaging in action, however, the sub-par direction of the film shows its seams. During action, the camera cuts around the beautiful visual effects in a jarring and inelegant manner. Additionally, settings often become cluttered with loud and obnoxious Pokemon, making things all the worse.
Case in point, at one point Tim and Pikachu need to infiltrate an underground Pokemon fighting ring in order to get information. From the onset, a DJ accompanied by about a dozen Loudred pump out grotesque music, which come out of the mouths of the Loudred in a grotesque manner. Later in the sequence, action ensues, and the music intensifies. The editing becomes more rapid. The shot scale becomes tighter. And, to be frank, it all just looks ugly.
There are some action sequences staged and shot better than this one, but none of it is as glorious as the character animations. By the time we reach the climax, the action is nothing more than an eyesore. Given how impressive the transformation from sprite to CG is, and how lived-in that makes the world appear, this shortcoming is disappointing.
As gaudy as the action is, as bland as the story is, and as lackluster as most of the performances are, Detective Pikachu has ambition. It is impressive in its smaller-scale achievements, in that it proves the potential of this world as a viable cinematic property. Could a truly great film be made out of the Pokemon franchise? Perhaps (although, the rote storytelling of the base games poses another hurdle), but Detective Pikachu is not it. It is an entirely acceptable first foray into the Pokemon unknown, presenting to us a beautiful world that is subsequently done a disservice by merely adequate filmmaking.
Detective Pikachu: B-
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)