POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU is an Uneven but Entertaining Adaptation. [Written Review]

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Pokemon Detective Pikachu

Directed by Rob Letterman; Written by Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit and Rob Letterman and Derek Connelly; Story by Dan Hernandez & Ben Samit and Nicole Perlman based upon “Pokemon” and “Detective Pikachu” video games.

Starring the voice of Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Bill Nighy, Katheryn Newton.

104 Minutes; PG

The “video game movie” stigma is a hard one to overcome. But it’s too easy to immediately throw out anything coming from that world with a laugh and “ah, isn’t it cute – they tried again.” That’s dismissive. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu has a lot to offer, and is well done in many aspects. The adaptation of the decades-old series (I’ll be honest, I haven’t played one since Red/Blue twenty years ago, although I do keep up a bit from pop culture itself) makes a valiant effort of world-building and story-telling in a way that is easy to follow for those not too familiar with the world of pocket monsters.
I applaud the decision to use a different plot Instead of following a Pokemon trainer, like Ash in the cartoon series and the spin-off films (I did see the first in theaters back in the day). Instead, as the title suggests, the film concerns a detective story set in a world where Pokemon and humans live together in harmony. It is apparently based on a 2016 game, although I hadn’t heard of this entry until the credits of the movie. As to be expected, the iffy cock-fighting elements and questions of “what do they eat” are pushed to the sidelines). Fighting is a part of the world, but in a wider-move, the Pokemon/human relationship functions more like a human/daemon set-up in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series (I cannot wait for the BBC/HBO adaptation later in 2019). Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) plays Tim Goodman, a young man from the suburbs who comes to Ryme City, a utopia run by Bill Nighy to put his estranged, and recently deceased, detective father’s affairs in order. He gets pulled into the case dad was working on after meeting a Pikachu (the face of the series) voiced by Ryan Reynold who was dad’s personal Pokemon. While all the rest speak only their name, this Pikachu can speak English – but only to Tim. They meet up with a plucky young reporter (Katheryn Newton) and her Psyduck and they work their way to the center of the mystery, unraveling layers of conspiracy.
Like Zootopia and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Pikachu traces its roots in noir cinema. Unlike those films, the typically-adult genre tropes isn’t melded into its world quite as well. This, along with the darker jokes from the Reynolds voiced titular pokemon, creates a dissonance of who the film is made for. For adult fans, familiar with the tenets of genre, there won’t be any surprises in how the plot unfolds outside of the lamebrained villain plan (not sure what exactly he was going for in the long run). For the younger audience, the just-convoluted-enough-plot will go over their heads. It doesn’t help the connective tissue is rather weak, with ideas and characters introduced and dropped like yet another Pidgey found in the grass. With much of the humor based verbally, Reynold’s commentary as Pikachu and the banter with Tim, the “ooh cool”of the myriad of Pokemon can only stretch so far in a 104-minute long movie. It’s far too long at nearly two hours; by the time we each the Batman-inspired climax, the Pokemon novelty and humor has worn off, dragging to an expected conclusion.
Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu is easily one of the highlights of the film, and the selling point. His voicework is solid, and although he does make meta-commentary on the story, is far enough away from Deadpool to stand on his own (but not too far away, the comparisons are apt). You want more Ryan Reynold’s voice-over work? I got some for you! I highly recommend Majane Satropi’s horror-comedy The Voices from 2014. Go check that out – you’ll be glad you did. The Pokemon themselves look great, although some look better than others. It’s insanely cool to see Pokemon do their thing out. None break the “oh that’s CG” barrier, but it’s good CG with fantastic detail work. They just barely escape the uncanny valley. They integrate into the world very well, and the world itself is captivating as an alternate reality that feels right and also gets the noirish sensibilities; neon and rain soaked with deep shadows. After Goosebumps (love it) and Gulliver’s Travels (hate it), directed Rob Letterman proves to the Roger Rabbit compositing well. Along with Alita, this is a good year for anime(influenced) live action worlds. There are no doubt an uncountable number of references and jokes to fans who would know (with my general knowledge I caught a few), but nothing felt out of place in a “oh this is obvious fan service” sort of way. Smith plays a good straight man, although he’s essentially a version of the Jurassic World character. I’m sorry, but Newton’s cub reporter is just bad, something is very off with her delivery. Poor Ken Watanabe must have owed someone a favor.
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu doesn’t solve the mystery of how to make a successful video game adaptation, but it sure tries. There is enough humor to keep interest up for much of the run time, although the appeal of the world wears thin by the end of the feature. It’s on that level where I won’t dissuade people asking me from seeing it. It tires to build a real story and characters in a video-game adapted world without leaning too heavily on the source material in a way that would push non-fans out, but is still fully in the world as much as in no way is an “in name only” adaptation with the barest of connection (Super Mario Bros).

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