Directed by: Rob Letterman
Starring: Justice Smith, Ryan Reynolds, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy
There’s no rule that a movie based on a game has to be terrible. There’s no stipulation that popular or cartoonish source material has to turn a movie into a display of exhausting clichés and insipid pandering. In other words, there’s no good reason why “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” should be underwhelming, and yet writer-director Rob Letterman (“Goosebumps”) has punted his creative responsibilities. His adaptation of the long-running Japanese franchise feels like a book report by a student who didn’t read the book, as intriguing and creative as a hastily assembled diorama. This is filmmaking as unadorned nostalgia, a novelty and nothing more.
in a scene from “Pokémon Detective Pikachu." (Courtesy photo)
For those unfamiliar, the Pokémon franchise of video games, playing cards, and animated TV shows, created in 1995, reimagines the world as being populated not by animals but by pseudo-animal creatures, each possessed of various abilities and elemental powers. These creatures, called Pokémon (short for “pocket monsters”), are kept by human trainers, some as pets and many for sport. Trainers compete, pitting their Pokémon against each other, the winner walking away with glory and honor.
It’s a reasonable enough premise for an animated kid’s show, as long as you ignore the whole domesticating-animals-for-bloodsport issue (which the show deftly does—Pokémon don’t die, they “faint”; they love their masters and actually want to fight for them; not a drop of blood is to be found). However, it never seemed to have much potential for a live-action adaptation, given the technical difficulty of pulling off such a feat. And so, the first of its kind, “Detective Pikachu” attempts to translate an animé universe into live action.
In this live-action world, every person has a Pokémon companion that goes everywhere with them. However, our hero, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, “Paper Towns”), is a loner, uninterested in having a Pokémon companion. But when his estranged father, a detective, dies under mysterious circumstances, he finds his father’s companion, a Pikachu (an electric mouse Pokémon), in his father’s apartment. What’s more, Tim discovers that this Pikachu can talk, something no other Pokémon can do. Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, “Deadpool”) is convinced that Tim’s father is still alive somewhere, and so the two partner up to find out what really happened.
There are bright spots along the way, among them Justice Smith, who endears viewers early on with a mix of unaffected sincerity and millennial sarcasm. Tim is nothing more or less than a kid trying to be an adult, overconfident and insecure at the same time, and Smith conveys that contradiction honestly. There are also many good jokes throughout the movie, some of which are simple one-liners and some of which depend on the characteristics of specific Pokémon. In the movie’s best scene, Tim and Pikachu interrogate a Mr. Mime—a Pokémon that, as you might guess, makes no sound but performs an uncanny pantomime. The scene is physical, it’s bizarre, it’s goofy, and it lets us see the conceit of Pokémon existing in the real world extrapolated to a logical and satisfying extreme.
The problem with “Detective Pikachu” is that these scenes are nearly nonexistent elsewhere. Eagle-eyed viewers who grew up with the franchise may enjoy spotting the various Pokémon peppered throughout the movie’s backdrops, but there is no reward for this scavenger hunt, no satisfaction that comes from seeing Pokémon brought to life. They’re just there—in the background, on the streets, on trains and in offices and in the air—just hanging around, biding their time, kind of like us as we watch. Kids may enjoy the pristinely animated (and often achingly cute) Pokémon, but there is nothing here that any number of other kid’s movies—including previous Pokémon movies—don’t do better.
The story, meanwhile, is too lackluster to carry the weight, featuring unlikable characters and head-scratching plot turns and unconvincing dialogue. This is often thanks to the movie’s devotion to the spirit of animé, which shortens and simplifies logistical problems and character motivations—hence, for instance, characters who announce their ulterior motives aloud, or scenes in which characters manage to infiltrate areas they shouldn’t be able to access. These quirks may be part of the animé ethos, but rendered in live action, they’re distracting and off-putting. As an experiment, “Detective Pikachu” can take credit for meaning well, but it does a better job answering the question of why, in 24 years of the Pokémon franchise, such a project has never been undertaken before.
Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate,
lives and works in Denver, Colorado.