Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
Dir. Rob Letterman; Ryan Reynolds, Tim Goodman, Kathryn Newton
[2 out of 4 stars]
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019) is the long-awaited and much anticipated first foray into a live-action Pokémon movie. To date, there have been more than 20 animated entries in the Pokémon film franchise. Yet there seemed to be a hesitation to launch into the live-action and augmented CGI fare: it’s hard to know how fans and newcomers alike will react to the translation of a fully animated narrative into a mixed CGI/live-action affair. However, the success of Disney’s The Jungle Book (2016) and the most recent Planet of the Apes movies has proven there is an audience for movies that utilize advances in hyper-realistic effects. It’s also worth noting that the recent trailers for Sonic the Hedgehog (2019) and Aladdin (2019) show the opposite, the reveals of their CGI characters sparking such fan backlash that Sonic’s director agreed to change the titular hero’s design. I am happy to report that Detective Pikachu features truly inspired visual effects in service of a movie that is flawed in any number of other ways while also succeeding in being quite a lot of fun.
Detective Pikachu follows the journey of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a rather jaded young man who once wanted to be a Pokémon trainer but now works an insurance job. When he gets word that his father, a police officer in nearby Rime City, has died in a car accident, Tim travels there to collect his father’s belongings. While Detective Pikachu doesn’t spend much time situating viewers in the world of Pokémon, the basic facts are these: the movie world exists in the same one as the movies and games that have preceded it, a place where Pokémon subbed in for the animals of the real world and are captured, trained, and set to battle each other by people. Rime City stands as a different sort of place within that world. Designed by Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), it is a place where Pokémon and humans exist on equal footing. And so, when Tim goes to his father’s apartment, he 1) runs into aspiring reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) who thinks there’s something fishy about his father’s death and 2) discovers his father’s partner, the eponymous Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds). While Pikachu was in the car crash with his partner, he is suffering from amnesia and can remember no details of the event. However, Pikachu feels sure that Tim’s father didn’t die in the crash. What follows is the story of Tim, Pikachu, and Lucy searching for Tim’s father, and of Tim coming to terms with their estrangement as he hopes to find him still alive.
It is important to say now that of the things that Detective Pikachu has going for it, a well-written and thoughtful script does not number among them. This may be partially due to the fact that there are 7 writers credited on the screenplay. With that many people vying for a narrative vision it only follows that the end result will not be a cohesive piece of storytelling, instead existing as the sum of different voices clambering to have their ideas featured in the final product. What does come through is a rather trite story of familial redemption and “finding yourself” that has no imagination in it, and moves from plot point to plot point without any traceable motivation. By way of example, Lucy’s introduction is the result of her just happening to be outside Tim’s father’s apartment when Tim happens to walk in. But instead of staying to grill him about her supposed lead, she delivers a few pulpy lines and leaves. It is horribly contrived, and is an apt example of how little effort seems to have been put into making a story cohere. The result is cast of characters and collection of plot devices that rarely rise above cliché or archetype, and a story that is more a series of often entertaining and engaging moments that never string together into a compelling narrative. I felt this most when it came to Lucy and Tim, who could be summed up by the descriptors of ‘spunky reporter too curious for her own good,’ and ‘guilty son who really doesn’t want to admit that he loves Pokémon because they remind him of his dad.’ There is little to either of them, the main human characters in the movie, beyond that. It is not that Smith or Newton is particularly objectionable in their roles, but neither actor seems talented enough to rise above poor writing to do anything interesting with their parts. Even the great actors Billy Nighy and Ken Watanabe, who do as much as they can with nothing parts, cannot imbue the human characters in this movie with any dynamism; Nighy is strictly the ‘would-be saviour who turns out to be a villain’ (a turn that is obvious from his first appearance), and Watanabe is the ‘caring and morally resolute police captain.’
All this may be simply because the point of Detective Pikachu is not the people; rather, it is to show off the Pokémon, and this is something the movie succeeds at in no small part because of the electric draw of Ryan Reynolds. Even hidden behind the CGI guise of Pikachu, the rat-a-tat quips and jokes that Reynolds has mastered in projects like The Proposal (2009) and Deadpool (2016) imbue the character with a relatability none of the humans achieve. Director Rob Letterman shoots the early stages of the movie like a neo-noir in the tradition of Blade Runner (1982), complete with dark alleyways and neon lights, and so he and Reynolds model Pikachu into a riff on the hard-boiled detective, and my God is it fun. In one scene, Pikachu takes over a living room to map out his investigation, complete with string and manic writing. When Tim discovers it and asks him what he’s doing, Pikachu walks around explaining his ideas all while picking up an endless array of coffee cups searching for one with any coffee left inside. It is a lovely take on the association between detective characters and coffees, and is the sort of satire that this movie would have benefitted from having more of. Reynolds sustains the banter and humor throughout the movie, and though I am surprised to say it, I would happily watch a movie that was made up of only Reynold’s take on Pikachu because it’s that entertaining.
Pikachu also encapsulates the greatest strength of the movie: the visual effects that bring the Pokémon themselves to life. As someone who grew up collecting Pokémon cards and playing the video games (once I was allowed to, that is), there is an inherent nostalgia in seeing many beloved Pokémon brought to life. They appear just on the right side of the uncanny, not being pushed to a hyper-realism that would have made them unsettling, instead being allowed to seem otherworldly. When we reach the obligatory battle-style match up between Pikachu and a Charizard, and then later the introduction of Mewtwo, the effects artists strike an impressive balance between honoring the look of the attacks and other battle aspects from the games and show while also tweaking them to seem just realistic enough not to jar you out of a suspension of disbelief. Elsewhere, great humor is mined from the usage of the Pokémon Mr. Mime when Tim and Pikachu try to interrogate him, forced to rely on an absurd game of charades to further their investigation. The Pokémon were always going to be the lynchpin of the movie, and the visual effects department does not disappoint.
Digressing for a moment, I found myself thinking quite a bit about the music in Detective Pikachu, which is not something I expected to happen. Henry Jackman’s score stands out as a well-handled blend of electronic and symphonic, incorporating musical cues from noir, action, and the classic Pokémon properties. Jackman seems to lean particularly on some of the work that Michael Giacchino and Joe Kraemer have done with recent Mission: Impossible movies to score Pikachu’s action sequences, and a murky blend of horns, synthesizer, and strings help sell the sections that lean into the soundscape we’ve come to expect from decades of film noirs. Overall it is a fascinating chameleonic approach to scoring the movie. There are moments where Jackman wears his influences a little too obviously, such as the track “Greninja & Torterra” that seems to be a thinly disguised riff on the theme John Williams developed for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in the newest Star Wars movies. In other spots, Jackman seems more confident to forge his own musical pathway. During the aforementioned showdown between Pikachu and Charizard, Jackman and Letterman incorporate the Pokémon Loudred and its sound-based attacks into the score, adding a propulsive bass line to a nice bit of action scoring. There may be no catchy theme that will join the ranks of the scores he’s emulating, but Jackman nonetheless turns in a respectable, and sometimes stirring, score for a movie that could easily have had just another cookie cutter soundscape.
Nonetheless, for all the success that Reynolds and the visual effects bring to the movie, Detective Pikachu never breaks free from the fact that it has no compelling plot to stand on, and no convincing live-action performances to sustain it. Deadpool, I mean Pikachu, can only carry the movie so far. I went into the movie with incredibly low expectations, and was pleasantly surprised by how much of it I enjoyed. Yet, in the era of slick, tongue-in-cheek blockbusters like Thor: Ragnarok (2017), the standard has been raised, and Detective Pikachu can’t quite hit the mark.