Pokemon Detective Pikachu (2019)
Written by Dan Hernandez & Benji Sami, Rob Letterman, and Derek Connolly
Directed by Rob Letterman
It was always a matter of time. It was 1996 when Pocket Monsters came to the United States in the form of Gameboy games and a collectible card game. I was in high school at the time and preferred to spend what little disposable income I had on comic books so I never really got caught up in the phenomenon. I think I played the card game once in college but wasn’t pulled in, I went and saw the first animated feature film in the theater due to a nearby dollar theater, and have played an hour or two of the Gameboy game. So I’m aware of the concept and can identify a few core Pokemon, but not a fan in any sense. That said, I was hoping that this live-action feature could maybe create a bridge between hardcore fans and the liminal audience that would make Pokemon appeal to the broadest audience possible.
Instead of a story focused around familiar characters like Ash and Brock, we’re introduced to a brand new protagonist, Tim, a young man whose private eye father is presumed dead after a car crash. His dad was partnered with a Pikachu who is struck with amnesia. After inhaling a strange purple gas, Tim can communicate with Pikachu in English while everyone else around him hears the same Pokemon chatter. Tim and Pikachu team up with news channel intern Lucy to follow the path his father tread in the hopes that the man is style alive out there.
From a worldbuilding/production design perspective, this is a fantastic film. The world of Pokemon is richly detailed and realized. Rhyme City feels like a physical place and the choice to go with RJ Palmer’s “realistic” Pokemon concept art is a smart choice. The production design team doesn’t go for full animal realism and still employs the cartoonish and exaggerated nature of the creatures; it’s a fine middle ground. There is an effort made to explain some of the Pokemon without being too exposition-y, like Mr. Mime and Cubone. I had the sense that there was a full back history to this world that has happened off camera. I would expect some awards on the horizon for the special effects team which was likely worked overtime and underpaid for the high-quality work they delivered.
That is essentially where all my positive comments end with Pokemon Detective Pikachu because when it comes to the story and the characters, the movie is an absolute failure. The plot is the most generic detective mystery you could come up with, and that would be fine if the film were going full bore in being a kids movie. However, there’s a surprising amount of cursing and adult implied humor that the filmmakers are going for a more cheeky tone. My personal belief is that if you want to do “wink wink nudge nudge” humor, then your story needs to be elevated to some degrees, I expect some more nuance and cleverness in mystery. I would be surprised if even children viewing this film don’t identify the villain within moments of their introduction. The “twist” that this person is the mastermind behind Tim’s dad’s disappearance is laughable.
It doesn’t help that our two main actors, Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton, are painfully dull and inept. Maybe with different material they could be fantastic, I know I’ve seen Newton do better on Halt and Catch Fire and Big Little Lies. However, in this movie, Newton is terrible; her line delivery is so weak and awkward. I have to pin it on the script, written by a mix of people behind movies like Shark Tale and Jurassic World as well as some failed sitcoms. I’d be foolish if I thought there was any noble artistic intention behind a big budget live action Pokemon movie, this is a vehicle to make money and appeal to the dopamine center of the brain that says, “I recognize that thing on the screen.” It’s a shame because I think there is potential for a genuinely good Pokemon movie, there’s an appeal to the creatures and their design. This shoddy movie is not going to gain new fans, but I’m sure people who already love the property will enjoy seeing a more tangible version of the creatures on screen.