Warner Bros’ attempt to revamp the Pokémon franchise with an independently standalone live-action is simply a go-big-or-go-home move. While the story is based on a game of the same title, Detective Pikachu basically ditches most minor elements that usually made it into Pokémon movies—including the famous Poké Ball—into some distant properties. For fans of the franchise who subsequently follows the game, this might look like an attempt not to be a verbatim adaptation; but, for casual fans, the whole idea of relegating the ‘pocket monsters’ into non-pocket-sized sidekicks might be a new invention. So, is it a blessing or otherwise?
There’s no Pokémon trainer arc as the basic story here. To compensate that, Detective Pikachu offers a neo-noir detective story adorned with myriads of cute pokémons roaming on the background. It follows the story of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who just lost his father, Harry Goodman, a famous detective killed in a suspicious accident. While observing his late father’s apartment, Tim is ambushed by his father’s pokémon partner, a Sherlock-hatted Pikachu who apparently just lost its memory. Strange as it seems that Pikachu can talk human (with the voice of Ryan Reynolds) only to Tim. Bound with the same loss, the feat ventures to unravel the fishy mystery behind Harry Goodman’s death. That’s where they team up with a journo-intern, Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her partner, a nervous Psyduck.
Detective Pikachu does not bother to explain the world of Pokémon, making assumption that general audiences may, at least, know the basic knowledge about it (or, maybe WB execs had discussed and thought that only fans would look for this). Only small gestures are made to establish the new rules—like how they no longer use Poké Ball or how people are no longer obsessed in becoming Pokémon trainer nor Pokémon fight (the only thing that resembles Pokémon fight in this movie is deemed illegal). And, yet, the world building is still as awe-inspiring as it should be. You might find yourself nervous as you see how some Squirtles are on the streets assisting firefighters or Jigglepuff singing around in a bar. The 3D CGI design of the pokémons helps to trigger that kind of feeling. Those cute creatures mingling perfectly with the background and we won’t bother even if they’re just some augmented imagery (thanks to the breakthrough Pokémon GO gameplay).
While the world building should not be something to argue over (unless if you think Detective Pikachu‘s visuals are merely a gimmick of merchandise commercial), the story is something else. Bearing the ‘Detective’ title, Rob Letterman actually makes some interesting visual cues earlier in the movies as if he’s referring to classic noir cinematography (even, at some points I thought it’s a future noir that reminds me to some elements of Blade Runner), but the story cannot keep up with the detective trajectory. Pikachu keeps bypassing the mystery build-ups and focuses more in making spectacles with materials that fits more into it. Alas, it’s stuck in the circle of identity crisis which weighs down the whole movie from the beginning until the end.
Pikachu’s relegation to a mere sidekick is the most fatal drawback. While he’s an integral part of this buddy detective story, his role is strictly limited to being some tools to keep the story forward. At this point, things can possibly go downhill, especially when you learn that the titular character barely sings out its iconic “Pika Pika” jargons (you can count how many times “Pika” words come only using your fingers). However, Ryan Reynolds comes to the rescue. Lending the voice to the yellow, electric fur-ball, Reynolds injects some audacity in the character. Pikachu is redefined into some goofy yet witty pokémon that stings more with the quips rather than electro-blast. Audiences who expect to watch a more faithful rendition of the character would find this creative liberty disappointing,but, you gotta admit it: Reynolds is best at doing what he does.
At its best bits, Detective Pikachu’s bold attempt to craft an independent story out of an overly established franchise ‘only’ results in a parade of cute pokémons that make great spectacles. Reynolds makes it alive a bit more with some flickering jolts. And yet, the whole movie feels bland at best. It could use more electric power in it. Possibly, instead of bringing Mr. Mime, they should have considered bringing some Voltorbs to electo-CUTE it.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
Action, Adaptation, Adventure, Comedy Directed by: Rob Letterman Written by: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit (screenplay & story), Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly (screenplay), Nicole Perlman (story) Starred by: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe Runtime: 104 mins