Pokémon Detective Pikachu (Rob Letterman, 2019)

Tim Goodman is a 21-year-old insurance salesman who once aspired to become a Pokémon Trainer. These dreams came to an end when his mother died. Because his father was never around, he distanced himself from the creatures that inhabit his world. One day, he receives terrible news. His father died in an automotive accident. Upon visiting his father’s apartment in Ryme City, he meets an individual who may prove instrumental in investigating the circumstances of his father’s fate.

WARNING: The following review will contain unmarked spoilers for both this film and the game upon which it is based.

Ryme City offers a different way for humans and Pokémon to coexist. Normally, Trainers would carry Pokémon around in devices called Poké Balls, but in Ryme City, the creatures are allowed to walk around freely. The visionary founder of the city, Howard Clifford, sought to promote a greater harmony between humans and Pokémon. As such, the police force does not allow people to engage in Pokémon battles.

One compliment I have to pay this film is that it does not leave those unfamiliar the series in the dark. It tells and shows the audience the inner workings of this universe without bogging down the narrative. This is a universe in which humans live alongside creatures called Pokémon. One could say the Pokémon act as pets for the humans in this universe, but the truth is a bit more complicated. Although some people do indeed keep Pokémon as pets, others train them for battle, allowing them to hone their incredible powers. Those who engage in the latter activity are called Pokémon Trainers. By the time the plot begins in earnest, the average viewer will know the basics of this universe. There is far more to it than what is presented in this film, but it is irrelevant to the plot at hand.

I also give a lot of credit for the designs of the Pokémon. The idea of rendering them in a realistic style would seem doomed to fail from the onset. This film does have something of a precedent in the form of Rocket Raccoon from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Initially, the writers wanted to leave him out of Guardians of the Galaxy due to potentially being overly cartoonish and out-of-place among the live-action actors and actresses, but they made it work exceptionally well. Despite this, it would seem that applying what allowed James Gunn’s effort to work to entirely fantastical creatures was impossible. After all, Mr. Gunn used a real-life raccoon to model Rocket and for obvious reasons, this wouldn’t be an option for Rob Letterman. Despite what seemed like insurmountable odds, he and his team managed to render these creatures in a way that made them look realistic without taking a swan dive into the Uncanny Valley.

Naturally, the first major turning point of this film is when Tim, investigating his father’s apartment, encounters a Pikachu wearing a deerstalker. For reasons that will become clear later, Tim is perfectly capable of understanding what this Pokémon is saying. This Pikachu is an amnesiac, being completely incapable of using any of his moves. However, he instinctively knows that Harry Goodman is important to him.

Because the game from which this film draws inspiration involved a lot of exploration, clue gathering, and questioning witnesses, the writers took a more than a few creative liberties with the plot to give it a faster pace. While the game began with Tim and Pikachu investigating the strange behavior of a group of Aipom, Mr. Letterman’s interpretation has said Pokémon crash into the apartment instead, effectively bringing the conflict to them. From there, they go to a television station to meet Lucy Stevens, a reporter Tim previously encountered. She, in turn, leads Tim and Pikachu to Ryme Wharf where they can potentially meet a person of interest.

One of this film’s greatest strengths is the dynamic between Tim and Pikachu. The film version of Tim Goodman carries emotional baggage significantly heavier than his game counterpart. He lost his mother at a young age and decided to shut himself off from both his father and Pokémon in general ever since. Because of this, he doesn’t exactly enjoy working with Pikachu at first. He is noticeably unconformable with the very thought of having a Pokémon partner, though he does warm up to Pikachu as the film goes on. Pikachu himself is the ideal foil to Tim, and Ryan Reynolds’s performance is what really sells this character. The electric mouse is enthusiastic about investigating Harry’s death while dishing out snappy one-liners for the strange circumstances in which the two of them find themselves.

A significant chunk of the film’s humor stems from the fact that such a small, cute creature has a decidedly masculine voice instead of Ikue Ōtani’s iconic portrayal. This is exploited for comedic effect later one when other characters can only hear the latter. This establishes that, for some inexplicable reason, only Tim is able to understand Pikachu. At the same time, what allows the humor to work is that the jokes generally aren’t at the film’s expense. This isn’t like many early video game-to-film adaptations in which you could tell the actors weren’t taking things seriously. A majority of the jokes make sense in context and the narrative has the courtesy to not linger on ones that fail to land.

Indeed, despite being based off of a fairly lighthearted franchise, the story gets surprisingly dark. The very premise of the film is that Tim is investigating his father’s death. While it is revealed fairly early that Harry is alive, it’s still heavy subject matter nonetheless. The fairly dark tone is complemented by how the film is shot. While the game usually had Tim and Pikachu travel Ryme City with a bright, blue sky over their heads, their film counterparts do so under a cover of darkness. The way the city is presented with its neon lights and dark atmosphere wouldn’t feel out of place in Blade Runner.

Even the idyllic Ryme City is revealed to have a seedy underbelly. Because Pokémon battles are prohibited within city limits, there are illegal, underground fighting arenas. The owner of one such arena, Sebastian, is irate because Pikachu had previously defeated his Charizard. Notably, before the match begins, Sebastian gives his Charizard a dose of a gas labeled called R. Given the context, this is could be considered an allegory for doping or drug usage in general.

With the narrative having plenty of jokes to tell and unafraid to go dark, it’s fitting that the film would offer a great piece of black comedy. It turns out the person of interest in the case is actually a Mr. Mime. This Psychic-type Pokémon has the ability to put up invisible barriers. The Mr. Mime proves to be extremely unhelpful at first, rudely telling Pikachu to “shove it” when interrogated. Playing along with what the Pokémon is miming, Tim, taking a page out of Mr. Blonde’s playbook, pretends to douse the Mr. Mime in gasoline and holds an invisible match. Under threat of perceived, yet immediate immolation, the Mr. Mime tells them everything they need to know.

After Tim is arrested in the underground arena, he soon finds himself in the company of Howard Clifford himself. The city’s founder tells him that his son, Roger, seeks to subvert his vision. Although the steps the protagonists take to reach it are a little different, the source of the R gas is the same in both versions. R is derived from the Berserk Gene of a powerful Pokémon – Mewtwo. The Pokémon was cloned from the Legendary Pokémon Mew. It had escaped from the laboratory in the Kanto region that saw its creation twenty years ago, but was recently recaptured. Mewtwo had supposedly attacked the car being driven by Harry, causing him and his Pikachu to crash.

The film even provides a unique spin on the obligatory third-act breakup. Rather than leave as the result of a particularly heated argument, Pikachu interprets his recovered memories incorrectly, causing him to doubt himself. When he learns he had supposedly betrayed Harry to the vengeful Mewtwo, he leaves, believing he shouldn’t cause Tim any more pain.

When Tim reveals everything he learned to Howard, the founder reveals his true colors. Using the R gas on Mewtwo, Howard uses his technology to fuse with the all-powerful Mewtwo. Coming down to the conclusion that humans need to follow suit, he unleashes the R gas on the entire city, causing people to fuse with their partners. Moreover, it turns out the Roger Clifford the audience had seen for a majority of the film was actually a Ditto – a Pokémon famous for its shapeshifting abilities. This is why, whenever Roger appeared to be committing a villainous deed, he never uttered a word and always wore sunglasses. The Ditto isn’t capable of speech and the sunglasses were used to conceal its identity. These twists are especially interesting because in the game, Roger Clifford was indeed the main antagonist. While the film appeared to be heading in the same direction, it was ultimately an elaborate bluff. Even if you took notice of the statues of Arceus, Palkia, and Dialga adorning Howard’s office and deduced he has a God complex, the second twist can catch a savvy viewer off-guard.

I can say that, in light of how these kinds of adaptations were usually received, Detective Pikachu is a solid effort. Even so, I have to comment it falls short in a number of ways. A fairly common criticism concerned the character of Lucy Stevens. While I agree she started off with the kind of energy that seemed wildly out of place for this kind of film, she became a much better character when she became relevant to the plot. After that point, she had more of a purpose, being a human foil to Tim while also imparting much-needed exposition to the audience.

I personally would say the biggest weakness of this film concerns the final act. The narrative leading up to the final phases managed to be brisk without rushing, which makes the compact nature of the third act a bit jarring. The townspeople being inadvertently fused with their Pokémon is an interesting development, but the narrative doesn’t give it a chance to settle, being resolved mere minutes later. It does culminate in an incredible moment in which Pikachu remembers how to use Volt Tackle and drives Mewtwo into the side of a building. However, the actual resolution leaves a bit to be desired. Tim merely walks up to Howard and unplugs the neural interface, severing his link with Mewtwo.

Despite this hiccup, the film does stick the landing reasonably well. It even has one incontestable advantage over the game in that it actually explains why Tim is able to understand Pikachu and what happened to Harry. It turns out these two aspects are interrelated. When Pikachu pleaded with Mewtwo after Harry’s car was attacked by Howard’s Greninja, it fused the two of them together. This allowed Harry to recuperate from his grave injury. Mewtwo undoes the fusion once Tim frees it from Howard’s control, allowing Tim to finally reunite with his father. Realizing that he didn’t consider his father’s feelings when his mother passed away, Tim decides to stay with him and learn how to become a detective.

When video games began soaring in popularity, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to begin adapting the associated properties to the silver screen. The 1990s alone saw live-action interpretations of Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat. However, it also didn’t take long for consumers to realize that these efforts were less-than-satisfactory. As a result of these films failing to resonate with critics, it didn’t take long for the common perception to be that any such adaptation is doomed to fail.

Those not versed in the medium often felt these failures spoke to the medium’s inherent lack of storytelling potential, but I personally feel such an inference only examines the superficial elements of a larger problem. The crux of this argument falls apart when you realize that while a majority of video game-based films were considered terrible, the opposite held true far less often. Whether it was the NES edition of Batman, Goldeneye, or Spider-Man 2, there were plenty of quality film-based video games.

There is a reason the relationship between these two mediums wasn’t a two-way street. There had been plenty of great films based off of books, and that is largely because going from one non-interactive medium to another is comparatively simple. Certain ideas may not translate, but this is usually on a case-by-case basis, and a good director knows how to make it work. Video games are a different beast entirely because of their interactivity. When translating from films to video games, you’re adding interactivity. When translating from video games to films, however, you’re taking that interactivity away. A large portion of a good game’s appeal is built upon what players can do with them, and there are plenty of great story beats that require the player’s input to exist at all. This makes a translation to a non-interactive medium tricky. What also caused many of these video game-to-film adaptations to fail was that they were products of the post-New Hollywood studio system. The producers didn’t tackle these projects because they saw potential in video games, but rather because they saw how much money they were making and wanted to capitalize on that.

Bearing this context in mind, I have to say that although Detective Pikachu is far from a perfect film, it was, without a doubt, a step in the right direction for these kinds of adaptations. Part of the reason it succeeds to a greater degree than any previous effort is because the writers took a universe with an intriguing mythos, yet didn’t try to replicate what made the games so good, thus ensuring anyone could comprehend the plot. The result is a film that, for all of its faults, does provide a fun experience that is sure to please fans and might even win over a few non-fans due to going in surprisingly mature directions with its material.

Final Score: 6/10

12 thoughts on “Pokémon Detective Pikachu (Rob Letterman, 2019)

  1. I enjoyed this more than I expected considering I have no knowledge of Pokeman besides oh, he’s so cute 🙂 but you’re completely right they did a good job of selling it without burying us under exposition! It’s a fun little film!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, I don’t think anyone expected it to be this good. When I saw the trailer, I realized it had a chance to turn out well. Sure enough, that ended up being the case. That one dark joke completely caught me off guard.


  2. Great review! I was really apprehensive when they first released the trailer for this movie, but for some reason the idea of going to see it grew on me just enough that I gave it a chance. 🙂 Nostalgia, maybe? It was fun and a lot better than I expected it to be, but I’m with you about it not being perfection. Which is fine. I tried writing up a review on it after I watched it but just really had a hard time with doing it because I didn’t want to make it sound TOO good or TOO bad. You nailed it with your review. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I actually thought the trailer made the film look good, but I can see why it would lose some people. And I don’t think that’s nostalgia talking; I honestly think we’ve just gotten to the point where live-action efforts can make these high concepts work. And I think we have the Marvel Cinematic Universe to thank for that. If Guardians of the Galaxy was never made, I would have been a lot more skeptical. However, because it provably worked, I realized Detective Pikachu had a chance of being decent, and that was indeed the case. It has its problems, but it’s definitely worthy of an honorable mention. It really helps that the crew was taking this project seriously.

      Liked by 1 person

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