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Detective Pikachu

I don’t know what’s harder to believe: That Pokemon is still a worldwide money-making phenomenon nearly 25 years after its inception, or that it took this long for Hollywood to come out with a big-budget film adaptation. I mean, no way the studios weren’t crawling over each other to cash in on this, right?

Well, to think about it further, of course it would’ve taken a while to get the VFX technology where it needed to be. To say nothing of Nintendo and its notorious reluctance to authorize any kind of cinematic or television adaptation. Yes, I know that Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993 was godawful, but I swear the people at Nintendo are the only ones who haven’t moved on from it yet. Bob Hoskins and Dennis Hopper are both dead by now, for God’s sake. I digress.

Even more than all of that, I think the biggest factor was the anime. To date, there are no less than nineteen Japanese animated movies set in the mainstream Pokemon continuity of Ash Ketchum and friends, plus another two set in an alternate continuity and an upcoming CG-animated remake of Mewtwo Strikes Back. There’s literally no reason for a live-action Pokemon movie when it would be more cost-effective to simply dub the existing movies and release those.

Yet here we are with Detective Pikachu, first announced in July of 2016 at almost the exact time when Pokemon Go went live. Here we have a very loose live-action film adaptation of a short Japanese game released in February of 2016. (The full version was released two years later.) I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this massive overhaul of the brand came at the exact same year when the last original-continuity anime film was released on both sides of the Pacific.

The whole thing reeked of a joke trailer that got taken way too seriously. As if we didn’t already have enough fan-generated renderings and short films, we’ve also got a talking Pikachu — voiced by Ryan Reynolds, of all people — who’s a detective. And he’s in a buddy comedy with a “straight man” with forgotten dreams of being a Pokemon master, and he’s looking for his missing father, and there’s Ken Watanabe delivering the most ridiculous dialogue in an over-the-top way as only he could do… It’s all so ridiculous and goofy, there’s no way anyone could possibly take any of this seriously. But then, it’s a live-action adaptation of Pokemon — it was always going to be silly no matter what they did.

Anyway, Detective Pikachu is set in Ryme City, founded by the eccentric billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy). The bustling modern metropolis was built as a utopia where humans and Pokemon could live side-by-side without fear of being hunted. Alas, things go sideways with the spread of a strange drug that drives Pokemon wild with homicidal rage.

What year was Zootopia released again? Oh, yeah — 2016. And it somehow took six writers to come up with this script. Sweet Jesus…

The plot is kicked off when Detective Harry Goodman is apparently killed in a car accident under unclear circumstances. His estranged son (Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith) comes by the apartment to pack up his dad’s belongings, only to find Harry’s Pokemon partner. This particular Pikachu was stricken with amnesia and only found his way to the apartment by way of a hat with his address on it. Also, he talks with Ryan Reynolds’ voice, which only Tim can hear for reasons unknown to both of them.

Tim is a loner from the boondocks who’s been very insistent keeping his boring insurance job and living without a Pokemon partner. Yet here he is with a talking Pikachu out to solve his father’s possible murder. Oh, and the Pikachu is amnesiac, so he can’t remember any of his attacks. Hilarity ensues.

Right off the bat, Tim needed an actor with way more screen presence to really stick. Justice Smith is clearly giving it his best shot and he gets pretty close at times, but he’s still not ready to carry a movie, much less a potential franchise. It’s still a step up from his godawful turn in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, I’ll give him that.

Luckily, we’ve got Ryan Reynolds to do pretty much all the heavy lifting here. If anyone out there was curious about what a PG Deadpool might look like, here’s your answer. This is Reynolds making every possible use of his loud-mouthed wisecracking persona, and the contrast of that voice coming out of that body is a huge part of what makes the film and the comedy work.

Then we have our female lead. Kathryn Newton plays Lucy Stevens, an unpaid intern with the local news conglomerate harboring big dreams of breaking this huge news story so she can be a true journalist. While the character is endearing for her sky-high ambitions and her sincere drive to do good, she’s also shrill, reckless, hopelessly stupid, and pathetically out of her league. So if the goal was to make a character who could’ve walked right out of the cartoon, then mission accomplished.

Oh, and Lucy’s Pokemon is a Psyduck, a Pokemon prone to cause massive psychic explosions when overcome with stress. I’m reminding you because the characters do. Roughly once every ten minutes. At every opportunity. Like you don’t already know exactly where the movie’s going with this.

Otherwise, the cast includes such talents as Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse, and others who gobble scenery like it’s the only thing between them and their paycheck. Also, it’s worth pointing out that we never actually see Tim’s dad and the filmmakers go to great pains in making sure we never see his face. So if you’re expecting some surprise cameo appearance to be the one playing him… well, yeah, that’s pretty much what happens.

Of course the real stars here are the Pokemon. The one thing this movie absolutely had to get right, and they crushed it.

I truly appreciate how the filmmakers pulled from the whole spectrum of 800+ Pokemon in the franchise history. Of course some fan favorites didn’t make the cut (I didn’t see Lucario anywhere, for instance), but so many details are packed into every corner, I’m sure fans will have a blast poring through the movie frame by frame. The character designs and animations are all gleaming with polish, and the production design looks remarkable from start to finish.

The movie gets by pretty much entirely on passion and creativity. Pokemon are lovingly used in beautifully inventive ways, ranging from comedy bits (the Mister Mime sequence) to action sequences (the Torterra garden). Perhaps more importantly, the film makes heavy thematic use out of friendship and personal growth, both cornerstone themes of the franchise as a whole. Also, the way the climax blended these two themes together was diabolically clever.

(Side note: The filmmakers even added a throwaway line to put this movie in continuity with Pokemon: The First Movie. They didn’t have to do that, and only longtime franchise fans would’ve caught it, but it’s a  welcome addition nonetheless.)

With all of that said, there’s one rather crucial aspect of the franchise that the movie completely overlooked: The obsessive need to capture every single Pokemon out there. That’s what powers the gameplay and the merchandise sales. It was the primary motivation of Ash Ketchum. Hell, it’s right there in the franchise tagline, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”

But in this movie, it’s like every human character gets exactly one (1) Pokemon partner. There’s no mention at all of discovering new species, catching rare and/or legendary Pokemon, swapping out Pokemon to get a type advantage in battle, or trading with friends. It’s disappointing that none of this plays any part in the plot, especially when the franchise’s most iconic antagonists are a syndicate of freaking Pokemon poachers!

Even so, the plot that we do get is nicely satisfying. I was suitably entertained by the various twists and turns, in addition to the father/son parallels at play. I also appreciate how the setups and payoffs are simple enough for a child to follow, but just complex enough to keep adults engaged. Alas, the exposition dumps tend to be pretty crowded, which messes with the pacing considerably.

Detective Pikachu is a video game movie, and the basic premise reads like a fictional work of pop culture satire, plus it got stuck with a post-Avengers release date. So mostly, the movie succeeds by virtue of low expectations. Indeed, there are some pacing issues throughout, the live-action performances are weak, and the script (most especially that first act) can be dolefully derivative. Even so, the movie is a great deal of fun when it really gets going, due in no small part to Ryan Reynolds’ spirited performance and the amazing production design.

If you are a Pokemon fan — or if you’ve ever been a Pokemon fan — you will almost certainly respond to the level of effort and passion that’s been put into every last corner of this film and I totally recommend seeing it immediately. I can also give this one a recommendation for anyone with kids — if you want a true family picture that will entertain the younger set without boring, insulting, or actively harming older viewers, you could do a lot worse.

For everyone else, I’d suggest a second-run or a rental viewing.

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