One of the friends I watched Detective Pikachu with cried when Bulbasaur first appeared on screen. I don’t just bring this up because it was funny – although it was, especially because we all knew she was going to and turned to look at her the moment that little lettuce-dog showed up. No, I mention it because I think it helps highlight the massive cultural phenomenon that Pokemon has continued to be, especially for people around my age; we grew up with these creatures, went on adventures with them when they were just a cluster of low-resolution pixels (seriously, some of the early sprites make Donkey Kong look like Da Vinci), and now seeing what we imagined these companions to be, fully realised on the big screen, is genuinely quite an emotional moment. While I wasn’t quite moved to the point of releasing fluid from my eyeballs, the first few establishing shots of Pidgey flying low over a meadow rife with Bouffalant and Doduo roaming the grassy expanses did make me rather giddy, and moreover made me smile like a goon. Detective Pikachu is a true labour of love, and aided by the fact it’s a pretty okay movie to boot.
We have to talk about the setting and art direction before anything else, because even from the trailers it was obvious that this is where the movie shines. Almost every scene, every look at Ryme City is packed to the gills with intricacy, be it with cute little referential signs or imagery, or the Pokemon themselves, a variety of which scamper and scuttle throughout the background of almost every shot. The immense amount of detailing is actually somewhat overwhelming at first, as the quicker-moving city scenes earlier in the movie made me feel a little bit dizzy, but this wasn’t an issue that persisted. Instead of the producers losing their minds with all these Pokemon though, the movie focuses on a few specific characters to actually involve in the plot. Mr. Mime is probably the best example of these – I was concerned the trailers had given away all of the best jokes of this scene but they haven’t (and neither will I), and the rapid-fire hilarity lands really solidly.
Even quieter scenes like the one in main character Tim Goodman’s bedroom are littered with callbacks to the games – Detective Pikachu draws upon its franchise heritage in a respectful, knowledgeable and resourceful way. So basically the exact opposite of every video other game movie ever.
Speaking of Goodman, Justice Smith (despite actually having the name of a rejected Phoenix Wright protagonist) does excellently in the role – while we all know the real Staryu of the show is Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous law-enforcing lagomorph, I was concerned he would overshadow the rest of the cast, and that isn’t the case. While Pikachu certainly gets all the good quips and one-liners, Goodman is well-pitched as an audience surrogate, as new to the world of Ryme City and all its weirdness as we are, and his groundedness and rather cynical outlook provide a nice foil to Pikachu’s coffee-addled antics. They’re not quite the classic Holmes-and-Watson dynamic, but they have immediate good chemistry, to the degree that they manage to pull off emotionally heavy scenes without the mere concept of talking to an electric rodent causing the tension to fall apart.
The same can’t be said straight away of Kathryn Newton’s character, Lucy Stevens (what I think is somewhat telling is I couldn’t recall the name of the character immediately, and defaulted to calling her “Psyduck Girl”). She fills the role of a secondary lead very well and develops plenty of nuances as the movie progresses, but her introductory scene left a bad taste in my mouth that took a while to wash away, and Goodman’s romantic interest in her feels underdeveloped and forced. Psyduck itself, however, despite looking like the wretched lovechild of a Daffy Duck and a Minion, is excellent; I think there’s a little bit of Psyduck in all of us.
While these high notes do generally make the movie a very enjoyable experience overall, it would be remiss of me not to mention its low points too – after all, after so many terrible video game movies, if a perfect one suddenly came out I think the universe might implode. After a competent opening scene with a few good jokes, the next 10 or so minutes feel railroaded into getting Goodman and Pikachu together. Goodman’s childhood friend is a fountain of exposition with some really clunky lines and iffy humour, and the aforementioned scene with Lucy feels like it should be being played for laughs, but no punchline ever arrives. The scene with Detective Yoshida is the only real saving grace of this section, played by the legendary Ken Watanabe (who you definitely know from something even if you can’t put your finger on what), but that only really serves to highlight how underwhelming the rest is – fortunately adding Ryan Reynolds’ Fursona into the mix gets everything back on track.
Additionally, the mystery element of the story (we are talking about Detective Pikachu, after all) is well-developed, with plenty of twists and revelations that unfold in an interesting and natural way, but the third act of the movie takes a hard-right turn onto ludicrous street. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; given the mostly light-hearted but nonetheless rational and grounded tone of the previous two acts, playing up the more fantastical elements of the Pokemon world was, for me, a fun change of pace. For others, however, it swiftness of the switch may leave them with mood whiplash and, at the most extreme extent, feel like the previous hour of mystery-solving has been undermined. This will come down to personal preference – as stated, this climactic ark pleased me to no end – but it has the potential to sour the experience for some.
Without the Pokemon brand, this movie would still be an enjoyable, if rather by-the-numbers, family animation romp. But the creativity and depth the property are used to, and the love and care put into every last aspect is what elevates this movie beyond a standard animated kid’s flick into something special. This is a movie made for Pokemon fans through and through, and because of that it kind of defies a “score” in the traditional sense. For me, a Pokemon mega-nerd and fan of gaming and general, it’s a magical experience and easily the best video game movie ever made, even if that title is like being made “best Russian dictator” (which was Gorbachev, Change My Mind). For Little Jimmy Snotnose who’s obsessed with Minions and thinks a “Pokemon” is a Jamaican playing cards, it’s still a fun movie to keep him quiet for an hour and a half – just don’t question all the 20-somethings in the screen with you, weeping at the lettuce-dog.
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