27 May 2019

Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

From Widescreen, 2:03 pm on 27 May 2019

Ryan Reynolds and some great cinematography make Pokémon Detective Pikachu a much better film than it has any right to be, says Dan Slevin.

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Photo: Warner Bros

After watching a group of previously-unknown-to-each-other cinemagoers at a recent screening of Detective Pikachu, I got to thinking that, as fans go, Pokémon fans might be the nicest fans in fandom. As the credits rolled, they turned to each other – and to me – and happily asked whether they had enjoyed the picture (I had), what they liked best (Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu, duh) and whether they were Pokémon fans before the film (I wasn’t). It was all in such good spirit that the toxicity of so much current online fan culture seemed a million miles away.

Pokémon has been a phenomenon in many different media since the first games were released for the Nintendo Game Boy in the mid-90s. Indeed, some industry analysts estimate it to be the highest grossing media franchise in history. That’s right, bigger than Star Wars and Batman put together. In July 2016, the augmented reality game Pokémon Go saw normally level-headed humans hunting virtual pocket monsters across the world.

Detective Pikachu is a live-action spinoff from another successful Pokémon product – an adventure game originally released last year for the handheld Nintendo 3DS device. In it, a talking Pikachu (this is very unusual) with a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker hat (this is kind of ridiculous) teams up with a teenage boy named Tim to solve crimes. The masterstroke of the movie is that the talking deerstalker-wearing Pikachu has the laconic voice and self-deprecating sense-of-humour of Deadpool star Ryan Reynolds.

Justice Smith as Tim Goodman with Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) in the deerstalker. Check out that film grain!

Justice Smith as Tim Goodman with Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) in the deerstalker. Check out that film grain! Photo: Warner Bros.

This immediately gives parents and Pokémon agnostics such as myself something to get our teeth into. Reynolds is genuinely funny and that voice allied to the cute, furry, yellow creature makes the inherently absurd situation a ride that you want to go on.

In the film, Pokémon are wild creatures that need to be captured and “trained” by humans in order to compete against each other (like horse racing or, if you have a darker perspective, bear baiting). There is one place where humans and Pokémon live in harmony, where relationships between the species is more like the partnership of person daemon in His Dark Materials, and where Pokémon fighting is illegal. Ryme City has an interesting look – London landmarks covered in Japanese-style iconography surrounding a Hong Kong-like bay.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is summoned to Ryme City after the untimely death of his estranged father Harry, a detective who may have stumbled on a massive conspiracy. In his dad’s apartment, Tim meets the aforementioned talking Pikachu who – thanks to a convenient amnesia – doesn’t know how he is connected to Harry but is supremely confident in his detecting abilities.

Our quarrelling couple stumble their way through the mystery until they discover Bill Nighy’s corporate father-figure and a secret remote research facility where poor Pokémon are experimented on.

Kathryn Newton is ambitious cub reporter Lucy Stevens with Justice Smith as Tim Goodman on their way to investigate the secret Pokémon research facility which holds the key to the disappearance of Tim’s dad Harry.

Kathryn Newton is ambitious cub reporter Lucy Stevens with Justice Smith as Tim Goodman on their way to investigate the secret Pokémon Photo: Warner Bros.

I’ve talked about how the amiable presence of Reynolds helps make the film entertaining but I should also add that director Rob Letterman and cinematographer John Mathieson (and all their collaborators) have gone out of their way to make the film feel like a film. They’ve shot the picture on old fashioned Kodak celluloid – and you can tell – and as much of the film as possible has been shot practically in real locations rather than in front of giant green screens.

It’s a lesson that many of these fantasy films could do with learning – that the more fantastical the story you want to tell, the more grounded and believable what you are seeing needs to be. Fans already think these little monsters are as good as real. It’s a sign of good faith that they can watch the film and nothing – or nothing much – can challenge that faith.

I wish I could say the same for the story. Sadly, the script relies on too many of the most common clichés of the big budget family fantasy film – dead mother syndrome, father-son disfunction, corporate corruption and general malfeasance and a third act that isn’t much more than lots of flying around hitting each other and destroying buildings.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is rated PG for violence and scary scenes but those scary monsters seemed to bother me rather more than the rambunctious 4-year-old brought by his Pokémon-loving dad to the screening I was at, but your child may vary. It is playing in multiplexes all over New Zealand.