The last time I saw a Pokémon movie was the winter of 1998 — Pokémon: The First Movie took its sweet time arriving to Patch Barracks theater in Stuttgart, Germany, and at age seven, I fully expected a cinematic classic. Upon departing the theater, I felt utterly betrayed (and envious of my father, who slept from start to finish!), and I never saw a Pokémon movie of any type in theaters ever again. Today’s new release, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu takes a turn in the right directon, moving to live-action and using ridiculously cute CG representations of the Pocket Monsters themselves, and attempting a relatively comedic take on film noir.
Based on the 2017 Nintendo 3DS video game Detective Pikachu, we follow the story of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a young man who just lost his estranged father, Harry, a detective, in an accident. Taking a journey to the mysterious Ryme City to collect his belongings, Tim gets more than he bargained for when he comes upon his father’s partner Pokémon — a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, Once Upon A Deadpool) wearing a deer stalker, who speaks fluent English, but only to Tim’s ears. In addition to being an amnesiac guided by the next cup of coffee that touches his super cute fuzzy lips, Pikachu believes that Harry is alive, and that the case they were working on has to be solved. The game is afoot, and it will take the help of put-upon intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton, Supernatural) and her explosive Psyduck to solve the case, one that will lead right to an old menace and a new threat.
When Detective Pikachu is at its best, it’s focusing on the things that made the series so great — big ol’ battles, buddying up with an obscenely adorkable creature that doesn’t exist in real life and having a blast with both, but when it isn’t at it’s best, it comes off as a poor man’s live-action Zootopia; make of that what you will. The story varies in quality — from moment to moment, you think you’re in the dark of what’s going to happen, and then the movie pulls old tricks out of the book, and you have the story pegged. It’s nowhere near as corny as The First Movie was (no cry-back-to-life here, folks!), but it’s such a letdown to have few surprises in this story. Also, the estranged relationship between Tim and Harry comes off as a stale afterthought by the end, which is a big mistake in a day and age when boys, and even girls, are without their fathers in their lives.
Still, director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) is to be commended for making a live-action film based on a video game that isn’t an audio-visual atrocity — technically speaking, this is a marvelous effort, with the Pokémon shown looking hyper-realistic (a la the brilliant Alita: Battle Angel) and still cuddly and cute as can be. Props also go to the actors in question, acting against almost nothing at all and still providing realistic reactions and performances — bringing to my mind two wonderful examples of such, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Bumblebee. Further props to Letterman for shooting entirely on Kodak 35mm film, providing a unique look in a digital age, and echoing the feel of 1960’s detective flicks.
Characters and their actors are not entirely successful — Justice Smith is terrific as Tim and brings the necessary angst of an abandoned child to the role with the needed tenderness he slowly builds toward his partner Pokémon. Reynolds is somewhat confused as to whether or not the movie is rated PG (sidenote: it is), and it’s really unnerving having him make jokes about Tim having last talked to a woman while he was in the birthing canal. I realize that an R-rated version of his jokes were recorded, but it’s so pathetic to be shoving that stuff in a movie largely intended for general audiences. Newton is charming as Lucy, is even cuter when she tries to be mysterious, and a prime example of how to write tough ladies in movies. Bill Nighy (Love Actually), playing Howard Clifford, the mysterious founder of Ryme City, is clearly having a better time in franchiseland than he did on either of the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels, but he’s not in it nearly as much as he should be. Still, he has more screentime than he did in the remake of Total Recall, and by all accounts, he had a ball making it.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is leagues ahead of the misery that was The First Movie, and might be the finest adaptation of a video game yet, but it’s bogged down by some tired plotlines, a few foul jokes and a weak story about the importance of a relationship between a father and son, something that needed to be stressed moreso. I can’t recommend it as a family film, and not so much as a film for the layman, but still, if you, the fully-grown reader, even remotely love Pokémon, you will have a ball, even if it’s only for visual callbacks to the characters we grew up with — this movie does nostalgia better than Ready Player One ever could have!