Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Director: Rob Letterman

Writers: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly, Nicole Perlman (story), Satoshi Tajiri (based on “Pokémon”), Ken Sugimori ((based on “Pokémon”), Junichi Masuda (based on “Pokémon”), Atsuko Nishida (characters), Tomokazu Ohara (original story), Haruka Utsui (original story).

Composer: Henry Jackman

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe

Genre: Animation, Action, Adventure

When Pokémon exploded into pop culture in 1997, it seemed that nearly every child became obsessed with learning all there was to know about these elementally-charged creatures. It was such a cultural phenomenon that’s it’s now considered a prime topic for certain psychological studies. While the franchise naturally couldn’t maintain its monstrously high popularity over the next two decades, it never completely faded away either. Neither did the fans.

Unlike other franchises, there’s never really been an “adult” version, though that hasn’t stopped the fans that have grown up alongside Pokémon from liking it. At its core, people just tend to love the concept of this fictional world. It doesn’t need to be bloody or gory to appeal to an older demographic. Generally speaking, we’re still kids at heart and while a more mature storyline wouldn’t go astray, what we really, truly, deeply want is to live in the Pokémon world. There’s a reason why society went bonkers over the augmented reality mobile game, Pokémon Go.

So step aside Marvel fans and your MCU! We’ve waited over twenty years for a live action Pokémon movie, and until virtual reality becomes more accessible, this will be the closest we’ll get to finding out what it’s like to live in the Pokémon world. Oh please, please, please, don’t suck!

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The Pokémon world features animal-like creatures that have elemental powers. There are several times throughout the movie where they involuntarily attack humans. For instance, humans and Pokémon alike dodge fireballs, get hit by soundwaves, duck aerial attacks, and so forth. A character is jolted by electricity, hurt for only a second. There are several times where characters risk falling from a height. Characters are sometimes restrained by violent Pokémon.

There is a lengthy sequence where the earth becomes unstable, and they need to make massive leaps to safety. A Pokémon is gravely injured (no blood, they are limp and unresponsive). A dangerous gas is intentionally released across a city, with many characters forced to breathe it in. A car accident is shown repeatedly throughout the film (it flips and falls off a bridge due to a Pokémon attack). There is talk about the possibility of a man being dead, due to his disappearance. The death of a family member in the past is brought up several times, though conversations are not detailed in regards to the manner of death. Dozens of humans are seen to disappear, turning a transparent tinge of blue and then fading away, with their consciousness implanted elsewhere.

Language/Crude Humor: God’s name is used in vain once. H*ll is said, along with minor insults such as “stupid” and “shove it.”

Drug/Alcohol References: There is a bar-like setting in the film, though the characters only order coffee. Pikachu has a coffee addiction.

Sexual Content: A young man says that he’s attracted to a female character. There is a recurring joke about how badly he mucks up his interactions with her. Pikachu makes an offhanded comment about how he’s not the type of Pokémon that would normally let someone stay overnight in his apartment. There is a topless man who is described as being all “tattoos and nipples”.

Spiritual Content: The concept that the body and the soul are two separate entities is a major component of the main action in the story. One character searches for an afterlife (or at least longevity). Body sharing occurs.

Other Negative Content: The ethics regarding the capture and experimentation of Pokémon is only briefly mentioned, if at all.

Positive Content: The movie strongly encourages people to make the most of their time with family members, promoting reconciliation should the relationship be less than ideal. It also promotes teamwork, being kind to others, and not being quick to judge.

Review

For those who haven’t kept a close eye on this franchise over the decades, Pokémon really hasn’t changed much. They’ve barely tinkered with the structure of the main games, the anime has a bad habit of resetting its characters each season, whilst even the company’s gaming and movie releases are painfully predictable with their timing. Like The Simpson’s where the status quo never shifts, neither does Pokémon’s conveyer belt of products, from games, then a season of anime, followed by an animated movie.

From its inception, they stumbled upon a winning formula, and recognizing it as such, haven’t dared to stray too far away from it. Pokémon Detective Pikachu may be many things, but one thing it’s not is a blatant cash grab. This project was a risk, one that will pay off because…

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is everything I’ve always wanted in a Pokémon movie.

Beautifully rendered, the film’s Ryme City is the place where long-time childhood dreams come true. Various species of Pokémon partner up and live alongside humans in what would be a utopia for pet owners. The city has an “international” vibe–it’s distinctly non-specific to promote a feeling of inclusivity, as though this is a place that could exist anywhere in the world. The local Pokémon are hard to get used to at first, with their fuzzy, cute appearances looking too unrealistic compared to the city background. Though as the film’s runtime entertainingly ticks by, it would be hard to find a Pokémon fan that hasn’t been won over by Ryme City’s charm.

It’s a good portrayal of what it would be like to live in this fictional world. This should come as no surprise, as this aspect was Detective Pikachu’s (the 3DS game’s) greatest strength. Unlike the main series of games where NPCs appeared to lead shallow little lives, only seeming to exist to help the Pokémon trainer, in the Detective Pikachu game, the locations and their inhabitants were fleshed out. It was the best depiction of a living, working environment in a Pokémon game.

For the most part, the film is a faithful adaptation of the 3DS game. The major storytelling beats are hit, and a few of the locations from the game are seen in the movie. However, there is some cause for concern. In the game, not all the mysteries are solved; there are some lingering questions left unanswered which leaves room for a sequel. Admittedly, it was underwhelming to play through the game only to receive an open ending.

However, the movie ties everything up neatly. I like self-contained narratives, and yet I’m freaking out. Has the film just ruined future games? It reminds me of the recent live-action adaptation of Fullmetal Alchemist, where the movie covers only the opening saga of the anime, yet it pulls a few story threads from the finale, effectively shooting itself in the foot should it wish to tell the next part of the story. Eragon also committed the same mistake. A sequel to Pokémon Detective Pikachu is already listed on IMDB, and I can only hope it will diverge from any future games, especially if my suspicions are correct and it has already covered their upcoming storylines.

Speaking of the plot, it’s the best we’ve seen for a Pokémon movie. Though we all know that’s not saying much. It’s like saying it’s the best video game adaptation, which isn’t a grand compliment either considering it’s only competing against the likes of Angry Birds, Resident Evil, Rampage, and 2018’s Tomb Raider. Narrative storytelling simply has never been one of Pokémon’s strongest drawcards, but that’s okay since it means that no one is really expecting much here.

There are a lot of elements in the story that we’ve seen before in other (better) films, yet that doesn’t mean it still can’t be entertaining. It feels wrong to describe Pokémon Detective Pikachu as the Pokémon movie for adults. It’s still very much a family film. Rather it’s “adult-friendly”, in that for once we’re not irritated by Ash Ketchum’s grossly impulsive decisions, and grating our teeth through heavy-handed dialogue giving saccharine-drenched life lessons. It’s odd, considering that Detective Pikachu was one of the more child-orientated spin-off games, with Pokémon Conquest being the most obvious candidate for a serious movie adaptation.

Odd choice or not, there’s a sense of maturity with this film, thanks to the main character being more relatable, which is sorely lacking in the animated movies. Justice Smith is Tim Goodman, who effectively plays the ‘straight man’ in the story’s comedic interludes. He’s the cynical voice of reason when external events take a hectic turn. However as relatable as he is, his refusal to participate and interact with the Pokémon world forces Pikachu’s character to work overtime in picking up the slack.

Yet, it works.

A lot of scenes feel busy and chaotic, particularly with Pikachu’s constant interjections and running commentary. But that’s what we love about the character, and Ryan Reynolds once again demonstrates his talent for voice-over roles. Tim may offer the film some much-needed thematic depth, though audiences will stay for the wisecracking Pikachu.

The other characters are underdeveloped and one-dimensional, though their simplistic desires feel intentional, as though the director wished to dip into melodrama. Tim’s character provides the film with a sense of self-awareness. It knows the plot is silly. Yet like Rampage, it tonally hits the right note, providing more fun than what it ought to be.

The beauty of this is that the film’s flaws end up being part of its charm. As much as this movie tries to wade into the crime genre, with Pikachu claiming to be a first-class detective, the investigation aspect is woeful. Most of the time the protagonists do nothing, leaving other characters to approach and dump exposition, kicking the plot along. As frustrating as the lack of momentum is, upon reflection, it is rather funny to acknowledge just how inept Pikachu is given how much he boasts!

One flaw that isn’t as easily forgiven is its twisty third act. After taking the plot through a sharp, rather unexpected turn, the story does take a deep dive into silliness. While twists are natural for a film with “detective” in the title, there’s possibly one too many, potentially leaving viewers confused about characters’ true motivations since they’re retconned multiple times. I swear there’s still a character that committed several crimes but somehow escapes punishment purely because the plot becomes too convoluted to for even the screenwriters to follow. A clear-cut Scooby Doo-style reveal with a complete recap wouldn’t have gone astray here.

 Things get very twisty, very quickly!

Fans will manage to overlook this nevertheless. There is a sense of care with the source material, not resorting to cash grab tactics like the Transformers franchise. It’s careful to stay within the lore (though Mewtwo’s powers are questionable). Whilst there are many nods and in-jokes to enjoy, casual fans (people who may have played the original games literally a donkey’s lifetime ago and have only come back into the fold until recently) will still understand most of the references. The Pokémon that feature most predominantly are from Generation One or have made appearances in other gaming properties or merchandise. Never fear, Pokémon from newer generations are also included, though they are mainly background extras.

Still, while the film does dedicate a sentence or two to explain the traits of each Pokémon the story stumbles across, it’s not a movie that caters to the uninitiated. It expects you to know what a Greninja is. So is this film accessible to non-Pokémon fans?

Well, my mum and I actually won free tickets to a session, and not wanting to waste them, my mum decided to tag along. She asked in the car whether there was anything she needed to know before entering the cinema. …I had to explain what a Pokémon was. Yep, that was her level of knowledge (and I am deeply ashamed that I never managed to teach her anything during the past two decades).

Her verdict?

“It was all rather silly. Bit of a nothing film.”

So, there you have it. Nostalgia and fan service works wonders! She was able to follow the plot, though obviously her level of enjoyment was reduced due to a lack of knowledge of the source material.

The film may be a slog for newcomers, but for fans, it a) provides an excuse to immerse oneself in the Pokémon world, and b) finally delivers a more mature, satisfying story. What more do you want? While I didn’t see it in the 3D format, I do believe this movie could be worth it; anything to enhance your experience of this wonderful fictional world. It’s far from perfect, but definitely catch this one in cinemas. Especially considering there’s a limited edition Trading Card promotion for those that see the film early. Gotta collect them all!

If you wish to see the film, then be sure to catch it early, lest you miss out on the limited edition trading card!

Positives

+ It’s everything the fans wanted. + Beautiful settings and CGI. + Pikachu steals the show! + Faithful adaptation of the game. + More mature than other films in the franchise. + Caters even to casual fans. + Tonally self aware.

Negatives

- The plot does get silly and cliché. - Pikachu covers a lot of the film’s flaws. - They kinda suck at investigating. - The film may have ruined the plot of future Detective Pikachu games. - The third act becomes convoluted. - Newcomers, not privy to the in-jokes, are left to judge the film on its flimsy plot.

The Bottom Line

This is a tough film to rate. For a Pokémon film, this exceeded my expectations. It’s a 9/10 when factoring my own enjoyment and comparing it to others in the franchise. However, it does have a number of flaws. Compared to the rest of cinema, it’s average at best. 7/10. However, since this film appears to intentionally appeal to fans, and embraces its silliness wholeheartedly, then it deserves some leniency. It delivers what is advertised.

 

7.4

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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