Detective Pikachu is a Slam-Dunk Case for a Live-Action Pokémon Universe

I was sold the second Cubone appeared.

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For millions of Pokémon fans worldwide, Detective Pikachu didn’t need to be an objectively good movie. It would’ve been nice, but what mattered most was one thing: seeing Pokémon in the real world for the very first time. Not in a Who Framed Roger Rabbit sort of way (as delightful as that movie was), but in hyper-realistic 3D models that interact with humans. It’s been a dream since at least 1999, when Mewtwo Strikes Back stormed movie theaters at the height of Pokémania. Now, in a post-Avatar, post-Pokémon Go world, we finally have tantalizing glimpses at life with Bulbasaur, Charmander, even a gaggle of rampaging Aipom running around while you’re out getting coffee.

And it’s incredible.

The magic of Detective Pikachu lies squarely on how director Rob Letterman (with close oversight from The Pokémon Company’s experts) brought the pocket monsters to life. It would’ve been easy to phone it in, throwing in different species here and there without real consideration of the source material. It’s a feature of video game and anime adaptations (Ghost in the Shell, Dragonball Evolution, Death Note, Assassin’s Creed, and the upcoming Sonic The Hedgehog all say hello). Detective Pikachu is the delightful exception. Pokémon are deeply integrated into the film’s backdrop of Ryme City, as allies, companions, even co-workers. Some refer back to the original anime, like Jigglypuff as a sleep-inducing lounge singer or Growlithe and Arcanine as Pokémon police (as a huge fan of both, they were the price of admission alone). Other appearances are unexpected, and downright clever. Machamp are traffic guards because, with their four arms, of course they are. Squirtle help clean up spills with water guns. Joltik crawl along city power lines because they are Bug types that feed off electricity. Loudred and their giant speaker ears are raucous underground club DJs. Octillery, an actual octopus, serves sushi in an outside food market. The film behaves like an old-fashioned Pokémon adventure, encouraging you to scan each frame for all the different species.

And they look great, really great. Fandom has been spoiled with the Game of Thrones dragons, but Detective Pikachu holds its own in the CGI space. The level of detail in the design work is staggering. In many cases, they elevate the animated versions with stunning flourishes, like the purplish tips of Bulbasaur’s bloom or the sharp texture of Gyarados’ scales. Torterra’s design is key to one of the most jaw-dropping sequences I’ve seen this year. Ironically, Pikachu might have the least inspired design, and yet it still looks wonderful. Just as much effort is given to the Pokémon’s distinct personalities. Pikachu may be the star, but several Pokémon get their shot in the spotlight, and nearly run away with it. Psyduck with his adorably persistent confusion is a scene-stealer, as is the hilarious secret informant Mr. Mime. The legendary Mewtwo’s self-serious existentialism carries over from the anime, but he still manages a compelling air of mystery. My only (admittedly selfish) gripe is that there weren’t more Pokémon featured. There were clearly self-imposed limits on how many were allowed, either because of production restraints or wanting to gauge reactions to the design choices. Rest assured, Detective Pikachu nails it, creating a genuine interest in seeing what other Pokémon could look like in the real world.

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Detective Pikachu doesn’t quite nail everything else. Like the spinoff game it’s based on, the film’s plot isn’t much more than a fluffy trifle with noir-flavored coating (once again, this is no Roger Rabbit). It is most successful leaning into the absurdity of its premise – an amnesiac Pikachu with a coffee addiction solving his human partner’s disappearance – and having fun with it. The narrative is flimsy, with a key plot twist that you can figure out very early if you pay close enough attention, but it’s doesn’t detract from the overall experience. The film wobbles, though, dealing with the more human elements. Simply put, the humans of Detective Pikachu are bad, even when considering the handicap of being surrounded by inherently more interesting Pokés. Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith, is a miserable sad sack. His sort-of love interest Lucky is just insufferable, and her stilted, over-the-top portrayer Kathryn Newton does the role no favors. Their motivations and backstories are riddled with clichés, and neither actor can convincingly elevate the material. The motivations of the movie’s villains are so ridiculous that they are best ignored. If one human does make it out unscathed, it’s Ryan Reynolds. Behind the Pikachu guise, he is phenomenal, bringing hilarity, sarcasm and a touch of genuine emotion to the iconic electric mouse.

At its best, Detective Pikachu understands that you’re probably not here for the plot or the humans. You’re here for the Pokémon, and the movie delivers them in spades. If you’re a longtime fan, Detective Pikachu will spring multiple wells of emotion just from quick glimpses of Snorlax and Slaking napping in the street, or wild Bulbasaur as sherpas. If you’re not invested already, much of it won’t make sense, and the plot isn’t going to help. Whatever your relationship with the franchise, Detective Pikachu is the first film in a long while to justify the need for a full Pokémon cinematic universe. I would pay top dollar to see Lucario, Lugia, Blaziken or Dragonair in the real world, with all their unique, specific quirks, interacting with (hopefully improved) humans. Now that Warner Bros. has proven itself capable, the possibilities are worth salivating over.

Long live the PCU.

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