Movies

Pokémon Detective Pikachu— Catching Lightning in A Bottle

Detective Pikachu
Image Source: Warner Bros. Studios
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Long-time gamers and movie-goers alike tend to be rightfully wary whenever a new movie adaptation of a video game is announced. As details are revealed and trailers start to drop, it’s almost impossible to not hear the collective groan across the Internet as producers and directors “Hollywoood-ize” 10- or 20-hour interactive experiences into a single, 2-hour watch. I mean, just look at Twitter’s reaction to the recent trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, a property long beloved and even treasured by fans who grew up with a Sega Genesis. Without the proper love, care, and attention to detail for a big franchise like that, you can turn what producers thought was a good idea into a laughing stock that only makes money so people can mock it.

In fact, I’d say most would argue that video games don’t lend themselves to movie adaptations at all, and already offer more than a movie can. Luckily for Pokémon fans everywhere, the latest game adaptation in theaters Pokémon Detective Pikachu did a great job avoiding everything mentioned above.

Pokémon Like We’ve Never Seen

Ever since the franchise’s conception, general consensus surrounding the idea of bringing Pokémon to life via CGI in a live-action movie or TV-show has been overwhelmingly… negative, with the standard opinion being that most Pokémon designs don’t lend themselves well to being adapted into a more “realistic” style. I’ve been trying really hard not to be too harsh with all my I-told-you-so’s after Detective Pikachu proved all those people wrong.

It was always very clear from the first trailer that Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures were doing our main man Pikachu right in the design and animation. The response to him was pretty universally positive, and the use of highly-detailed motion capture of Ryan Reynolds’ (the voice of the iconic mascot) face as he recorded lines for the role made for silky smooth animation that was not only expressive, but extremely natural looking. But what about the other Pokémon that were represented in the movie? Other cuties like Jigglypuff and Togepi were no issue, with their simplistic and minimal designs fitting easily enough on screen with ease, similarly to Pika. And while some people were put off by things like the fur on Pikachu or Jigglypuff… let’s be honest with ourselves, we all knew they had fur. What did you think the curl on Jigglypuff’s head was? Solid flesh?

Jiggypuff
Image Source: Warner Bros. Studios

But Pokémon like Gyarados, Greninja, Charizard, and Mr. Mime – all more complicated designs or, in Mr. Mime’s case, something that is not based in any kind of reality – were all done with an equal amount of care that shows us the filmmakers are familiar with the franchise and wanted to do it justice. Nobody involved in this film wanted to just copy a Pokémon from the game and paste it into the movie. They wanted to translate and adapt their designs into this world in a way that’s never been done before, and it shows. And for people who prefer the less realistic designs in the games, the movie did a very clever thing with its Pokémon — exemplified during the Pokémon carnival with giant balloons, we’re shown that those simpler designs are still utilized in the Pokémon world as artistic interpretations of the “real life” counterparts, much like how you’d see a cartoon or Chibi version of a dog or cat.

When it came to actually integrating each Pokémon into regular life, the filmmakers went to great lengths to make sure that each ‘mon served its rightful place in and around Ryme City. Squirtle put out fires, Braviary deliver mail, Machamp direct traffic, and Ludicolo use their large lilypad heads to deliver food as waitstaff. People and Pokémon communicated and interacted in a way that felt legitimate, natural, and lively.

By treating the Pokémon world as something unremarkable, as something people are already familiar with, there’s no need to spend time on exposition and explanations. In fact, you actually make the movie more accessible to fans of the series and non-players alike. Because, at the end of the day, even non-fans know the act of throwing a Poké Ball to catch a Pokémon. The international franchise doesn’t need to be explained to us for the umpteenth time. By skipping these expositional moments, the film has room for character development and plot arcs that end up creating a fully fleshed out movie.

Storytime

While the general reviews for Detective Pikachu have been positive, one of the main things I’ve seen from fans and critics is that the plot is somewhat underwhelming. It should, of course, come as no surprise that a movie’s plot is pretty important to the overall quality, and while people aren’t saying it’s bad necessarily, it’s being regarded as pretty run-of-the-mill as far as movie plots go. I can’t speak for everyone that’s reviewed this movie, but I do have to wonder if people might have been disappointed by the fact that there’s no real traditional Pokémon arc in Detective Pikachu.

What I mean by that, is that you won’t come out of the theater pumped up and hyped about all the cool Trainer battles you saw, or all the impressive scenes of Trainers catching wild Pokémon. For the hardcore fans, we’re given slight teases as to what these could look like with a singular catching Pokémon scene and a single Trainer battle scene, but past each one of those there’s not a whole lot of familiarity in terms of what we’ve seen done in the Pokémon universe before. And if I’m being honest, this is a good thing. We don’t need those stories. Pokémon fans have 21 animated films, with a CG-remake of the first film, that represent those stories. Even more intense is the literal 1,000 episodes of the animated series, that give us all the Pokémon catching and battling our hearts might desire. For film critics who haven’t seen those, they may have been hoping for something more traditional. And I’ll admit it would be great to see these traditional game mechanics expanded in what I hope becomes a live-action cinematic universe for the Pokémon franchise (the taste we did get was GOOD). But do I believe that the traditional Pokémon Trainer origin story would work as the main story arc for a live-action Pokémon film? Honestly? No.

The Pokémon universe is massive, and there are a LOT of stories to tell. We don’t need to see those origin stories again, and as was mentioned earlier, I think taking the time to build out an origin story would only serve to be a bunch of explanation and exposition that we don’t need, which would make the film less accessible. Non-fans can’t relate to picking your starter Pokémon and heading out on an epic Pokémon adventure. However, fans CAN relate to a soft fantasy mystery film about finding your father and making friends with cute animals. Which brings me to my next point — the actual plot of the movie. I will concede and say at its VERY core, the story for Pokémon Detective Pikachu may be a little bland: to anyone skimming the Wikipedia page, they may interpret it as a run-of-the-mill young man searches for his lost father arc…

Justice Smith
Image Source: Warner Bros. Studios

However—using the Pokémon world, it becomes a lot more than that. Now, I’m not going to sit here and argue that it was the most profound film I’ve ever seen in my life, but I will sit here and argue that what the filmmakers and writers did with this script was not only smart but successful. As I’ve said earlier, it’s clear that the people behind this project know the franchise and worked closely with The Pokémon Company, and they used that knowledge to their advantage to create a story that couldn’t have actually worked in any other movie.

While the base idea might be present in plenty of other stories across film, TV, books, and games, the details of this one make it so that it couldn’t be copy/pasted into any other film. It is a story that is completely rooted in the Pokémon universe, and relies so heavily on the lore of the franchise and the established canon as well as the additional lore that the movie adds, that it becomes unique in and of itself. Could it have been done without the use of the disability trope? Yes, absolutely, and while I see where they were trying to come from in that decision I do wish they had tried moving away from it, too. At the end of the day, is it anything revolutionary? No, probably not. But I don’t need it to be. To me, and plenty of fans out there, Detective Pikachu doesn’t need to take risks. It needs to respect the franchise, do it justice, and redefine what it means to be a video game adaptation. And at the end of the day, it did all three of those things.

Reynolds, Smith, and Newton — Pokémon Trainers at Heart

I think one of the biggest risks you can run when adapting a video game into a movie, particularly a video game that’s part of a larger, decades-long franchise, is casting the wrong people for the job. Not everyone is interested in games or plays every game out there, and I don’t expect them to. But for something like Pokémon, there is such a huge learning curve that is often adhered to naturally just from years and years of playing the games, that someone with absolutely no knowledge of the property might have a hard time understanding… anything that’s going on. Or even pronouncing the names of the ‘mon correctly. It’s a slippery slope, because even one ill-cast character can drag a whole movie’s performances down, and once you’re down that slope it’s hard to climb back up.

I already think that Justice Smith was the perfect choice for Tim Goodman in this movie, and I’d be hard-pressed to find someone to convince me otherwise. Smith somehow manages to be expressive but reserved, willing but hesitant, fun but cautious, and these are all traits that are required to properly portray Tim. He is someone who wrongfully blames Pokémon in general as the reason for his father disappearing, and in doing so he’s decided he has no interest in being involved with them. Still, he lives in the Pokémon world and so he knows he can’t avoid them, and I can’t imagine this is a balance that’s easy to strike. But Smith seems to hit it with ease, and you get it from the moment you see him on screen. And when he’s forced to pair up with Pikachu despite his hesitation to get help from a Pokémon, him and the little yellow mouse play off each other perfectly.

Trainers
Image Source: Warner Bros. Studios

Speaking of Pikachu, you should recognize the voice immediately: the very distinctive Ryan Reynolds, who seems like he may have drawn some inspiration from his other iconic big-franchise character Deadpool, for Pikachu. This might sound off-putting to some at first, but the snarky, sarcastic, coffee-addicted Pikachu actually works surprisingly well. And the thing is, I couldn’t even tell you why. It might just be Reynold’s performance, but there wasn’t a single moment during the film where I really questioned why Pikachu acted the way he did, or why his personality was the way it was. It truly is as simple as the fact that it just works, and I think even those who were gunning for Danny DeVito to be the voice of Pikachu will be happy with Reynold’s performance.

Tim Goodman’s main love interest, Lucy, is played by Kathryn Newton. An ameteur reporter who mostly just writes Pokémon listicles with titles probably similar to “Top 10 Cutest Pokémon” (for the record, listicles like this are useless; they’re ALL cute), she aspires to be something more and sees Tim’s search for his father as the perfect opportunity to prove herself. Newton’s performance as Lucy was just as good as both Smith’s and Reynolds’, and while her character isn’t quite as present as the other two, I can say with confidence that the scenes she’s used in would be lacking without her. My only issue with her performance was a minor one: there were certain lines where the delivery bordered on campy dramatics, which I didn’t always feel fit the rest of the movie. However, I don’t attribute this to Newton’s performance so much as the direction she probably got in her delivery.

Supporting cast such as Ken Watanabe as Detective Yoshida and Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford all do a great job as well, and there wasn’t a single point where I walked away feeling like I was missing something out of any performance. And when it comes to Smith and Newton, the two human characters you’ll really be spending the most time with, you can tell that they’re true Pokémon fans at heart. They knew what they were getting into with this film, and they were proud to get to be a part of it. And this genuine love for the franchise not only shows, it pays off.

Pokémon In the Future

With the success of Detective Pikachu, it begs the question: where does the Pokémon franchise go from here? The movie was undoubtedly a massive, revolutionary step not only for the IP but for video game movies in general, and we have to assume that Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, and The Pokémon Company will want to capitalize off the good press and success of this experiment.

We know for sure that a sequel is already confirmed and in development, with a screenwriter already having been hired for the project. But past the Detective Pikachu spinoff series, everything is up in the air. Pokémon fans in any capacity will know that there’s tons of lore and stories within the Pokémon universe to play with, with other spinoff games being good contenders for the next Pokémon adaptation. As for the mainline Pokémon games, I don’t think adapting those would be the best idea (see above as to why). What I’d like to see most is a good team of writers come together to create all new, original stories that take place within the context of the universe. It is vast and there is a lot to play with, and I don’t doubt that creative people could group up and spit out something great. While I don’t believe the classic Pokémon Trainer story is something that would translate well onto the screen, I do believe there’s plenty of stories that could be told, and the world is ripe and waiting to be picked from.

Charizard
Image Source: Warner Bros. Studios

Walking away from the film, I can say this: Detective Pikachu is genuinely entertaining. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s adventurous, and it’s magical. For Pokémon fans, it’s absolutely a thing of wonder. This film is a love-letter to die-hard Pokémon fans, but it’s also just a good movie, and as stated before completely accessible to non-fans of the franchise. In layman’s terms, it was a complete pleasure to watch. If you’re looking for something fun that will lift your spirits, or something cute that will put you in a good mood, I recommend going to see this 100%. Also, I need everyone involved to know that this was an endeavour that was more than worth it.

Lastly, if you’re a Pokémon fan, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. Whether you’re a casual player or a complete PokéManiac like me, you’ll walk away from the theater with a reinforced sense of why you love this franchise so much. Guaranteed.

Which Pokémon would you like to see get a live-action movie next? Let us know in a comment below.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is in theaters now

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