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“Detective Pikachu” is shockingly decent

Photo via screenshot from movie trailer

The globally-recognized Pokémon franchise has produced no less than twenty-one animated films since 1998, building on the success of the television series that has aired over 1,000 episodes at the same time. However, on May 10, 2019, the franchise took a new approach to feature films with the release of “POKÉMON Detective Pikachu”. This is the first live-action entry in the franchise, and as such, it had to fulfill twenty years’ worth of expectations from a massive audience while still being accessible to a general audience. While it may not be a masterpiece of cinema, the film is more than serviceable as both a love letter to existing Pokémon fans and a warm welcome to new ones.

Based on the 2016 video game “Detective Pikachu”, the film follows a simple plot and introduces the audience to a slew of charming and likable characters. Our protagonist is a young man named Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith), who once had dreams of becoming a Pokémon trainer but has now resigned himself to being an insurance agent. When he receives news that his father Harry, a police officer, has died in a car accident, Tim travels to Ryme City to gather Harry’s belongings. While in his father’s apartment, he meets the titular Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and finds that they can somehow understand one another. After this initial shock, Pikachu tells Tim that he was Harry’s police partner, convinces him that Harry is still alive, and kick-starts a fast-paced romp through the city and across the countryside in an effort to get to the bottom of a supposed government cover-up.

The film quickly explains the general concept of the anime near the beginning: Pokémon are wild animals that can be caught and trained by humans to fight other Pokémon in staged battles (the presentation is not nearly as dark as this concept sounds). However, Ryme city is designed from the ground up by its founder Howard Clifford to be a place where Pokémon and humans live in harmony.

Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is that it does not require the audience to know anything about the Pokémon franchise to understand what is going on. The film relays all necessary information about individual Pokémon and the world they live in as it becomes relevant to the story. It never pauses the action to explain anything more than we need to know. This is not to say that the film ignores the vast catalog of Pokémon that a diehard fan would expect to see; the Pokémon are definitely the visual focus of the film, and in some of the larger scenes the sheer amount of Pokémon present will impress both newcomers and old fans alike.

This brings us to the way the film actually looks. The Pokémon look just cartoonish enough to stand out from the human world, but they also look real enough to belong in it. Each one has a unique visual style that effortlessly communicates what that Pokémon is all about. The powers and abilities of each Pokémon are never explained in any real detail, but are visually distinctive and get the point across for a casual audience. The visual effects are excellent across the board.

The cinematography is spectacular, ranging from tightly-framed close-ups that have a surprising amount of emotional weight to sweeping shots of entire landscapes as the earth shakes under the feet of our heroes. The director of photography, John Mathieson, has previously worked on “spectacle” films like “Gladiator” (2000) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (2004), and he shot “POKÉMON Detective Pikachu” in much the same way. The film has moments of beautiful, grandiose presentation interspersed with deeply intimate, emotionally-driven scenes and it all looks fantastic.

Backing all of these visuals is a soundtrack that I found very enjoyable. I found the Ryme City theme to be especially striking, as it combines a modern, almost ethereal melody with huge orchestra rises, and even a brief harmony that evokes the nostalgia of the original 8-bit video games. The soundtrack never lingers on one feeling or theme for too long, bouncing between tracks with the same energy as the caffeine-fueled Pikachu dragging Tim from one setpiece to another.

Unfortunately, this brings us to the weakest point of the film: the plot. It is by no means bad, nor does it ever drag or get bogged down by exposition. Rather, it is just kind of boring. The main villain and their motivations are never fully explained, the story sort of jumps from beat to beat with little time to process what just happened, and there was a big reveal at the end that was so simplistic that the main characters should have figured it out long before the climax. The story has some emotional moments, but these are mostly driven by the acting and soundtrack rather than any real investment on the audience’s part. The story establishes some strong characters and builds good relationships between them, but ultimately delivers an uninspired and somewhat rushed narrative.

The acting was fine for the most part. Smith and Reynolds have good on-screen chemistry, and their characters share some genuinely funny, character-driven moments that had the entire theatre chuckling. Some of the minor characters are obviously enjoying themselves, especially a borderline psychotic gym leader who only appears once (and definitely makes the most of it). The villains also do a decent job of making themselves sympathetic while still being evil enough to make us root for the heroes. There were a few odd stutters that made me wonder if Smith forgot his line and the director decided to keep the shot anyway, but the performances are otherwise solid.

“POKÉMON Detective Pikachu” is a film with a lot to offer. For longtime fans of the franchise, there is plenty of fanservice and probably countless references that I didn’t pick up on. For a more general audience, there is the visual spectacle of seeing a well-realized and fresh new world explored on the big screen. The film is obviously targeting a younger demographic, but there are enough engaging action sequences and sharp jokes to keep older viewers entertained as well. It won’t be winning Best Film of 2019, but it doesn’t have to; as the first live-action entry in the Pokémon film franchise, it just had to establish itself as something more than a Saturday-morning cartoon. And I think it has more than managed to gain the attention of many people who would otherwise be uninterested in a movie about cutesy animated monsters.

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