For every two kids that love Pokemon, there’s probably one adult who scratches their head wondering what the fuss is all about. I was minding my own business at the bookstore once and I overheard a mom ask for one of those “stupid Pokemon books my kid loves so much”. I have an explanation as to why Pokemon is loved so dearly. At this point in time, there are almost 1,000 different kinds of these, by definition, pocket monsters, and back when there were only 151 that was still a fair bit. And in the Pokemon video games, it’s almost entirely up to you, the player, who your Pokemon team is comprised of. It’s like when you pick which Pokemon will accompany you on your adventure, you battle with a bit of your identity within your team. What’s more, as you battle strong trainers and you play all sorts of games with your selected teams, you may begin to feel a bond with that particular Pokemon. That’s why the Pokemon fanbase is so everlasting.
Here’s my history with Pokemon (we’ll get to the review, I promise. This has to do with the review. I’ve noticed most critics don’t have a history with this universe like I do, so I thought I’d balance the consensus and general information out.) Pokemon FireRed for the GameBoy Advance was my first game obsession (I still have the cartridge and console). Then I played Emerald, then Pearl, and it just went uphill from there. Shortly after getting Emerald, backtracking, I began watching the show, starting at the Hoenn Battle Frontier season. Then I watched all of Sinnoh (the Diamond and Pearl seasons), had my intelligence utterly insulted in one swoop, then quit about halfway through Unova (the Black and White seasons). Look, the general outlay of the Pokemon videogame turned instantly into tradition; the player must get better by beating eight gyms with their trained Pokemon, then battle and beat the Elite Four all in a row and then the Champion to win the game. Then the TV show has to follow that route too, except instead of the Elite Four, there’s a championship against everyone else who has won eight badges. Considering the competition for champion title in the non-videogame-world, that’s the logical route. The problem is the show writers got addicted with Ash Ketchum, Pikachu, and the crew following him, and Ash’s goal was to win one of these competitions and be declared a Pokemon master. But if the writers let him win, there would be no reason to go to a new region, and therefore make a new region, new Pokemon, new situations, a new TV show. The irresponsible Pokemon anime writers have treated the show like it’s oxygen, a death wish if it ever stopped, but it’s the opposite. You have no idea how insulting it is to follow a protagonist for three years through one goal, and win against a despicably tough rival in true champion fashion, and then lose tremendously in one episode in a completely shoehorned way (Sinnoh). But now, after over 20 years of the Pokemon television show shamefully squandering the potential of their world with the fear of change, Detective Pikachu has finally made that change for them, and they have managed to finally allow the former Pokemon fans to exhale, being able to get them to look past Ash’s Kalos league failure (I’m one of these angry fans) and look forward. Or maybe look at the present, at the screen.
Detective Pikachu takes place in the same Pokemon world established by the show and comic books and video games, only this takes place in a new city, Ryme City, where there are no Pokemon captured in Pokeballs or battles. Instead, Pokemon live with humans together in harmony, helping out with situations and being family. Ryme City is where Harry Goodman was living for a while as a professional detective, with his son Tim having grown up with his grandmother after his mother died and both Tim and his father were so full of grief they drifted apart. Tim’s friend Jack is trying to convince him to try out the Pokemon training world, because I guess Pokemon trainers sometimes don’t just aim for the championship title but could also use their Pokemon for goods and services, you know, freelance work. One day, Tim gets a message from his father’s good friend Detective Hideo Yoshida. Something terrible happened. His father died in a terrible car accident, possibly Pokemon-provoked. Tim is in the city to mourn for no more than a day when he finds five freaky things in his apartment: a Pikachu, the Pikachu wearing a hat, the Pikachu talking, the Pikachu speaking like Ryan Reynolds, and a weird flask of Ninja-Turtle purple ooze that evaporates into toxic purple smoke exposed to air. Pikachu insists to Tim his father is alive, and despite Tim not being as optimistic, he decides to set off with this talking Pokemon to try to find the bread crumbs in the monstrous city, created by visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) and his son Roger (Chris Geere).
The trailers kept showing so many Pokemon I was worried there would be no new ones left in the film. There have been hundreds of movies with overly bloated trailers. But this one makes a game of itself (no pun intended) trying to catch every Pokemon on screen (again, NPI). This is a world where Pokemon are completely habituated and everywhere. Some may call it cluttered but that seems to be the point. All true Pokemon fans have at least once imagined having one of their favourite Pokemon right beside them in a situation or two. Other Pokemon fans will marvel at every single moment any Pokemon is on screen, let alone twelve. They’ll feel like their fanbase is more appreciated. The actual Pokemon look perfectly rendered into this world. The Lickitung on this train had adorable dog eyes and an adorable tongue that wanted to show love. The three original starter Pokemon were all in this and they were always cute, especially when they were walking around.
Justice Smith, Ryan Reynolds and Kathryn Newton are terrific as the underdog protagonists, always likeable and believably performing. Newton plays Lucy Summers, a reporter still in the slumps but definitely more passionate than general journalists, and she’s delightfully curious about everything that comes by her. Smith as Tim was both taut and dynamic, emotional and contained just enough. He seems to be very happy to be in this kind of production, disregarding the idea of Pokemon being just for kids. He commits. And Reynolds seems to be having just as much fun here as his other big-shot superhero film franchise. A lot of people are saying the movie would never have worked without him and his status. While I disagree that it never would have worked, Reynolds did not phone it in. There’s even an expected emotional scene that really works thanks to his tone.
Ryme City, as well as the times outside of the film, everything feels so established. The biggest delights in this sparkling surge of a film are definitely the Easter Eggs. There are even references to the first Pokemon movie from 20 years ago, an Easter Egg that comes in the beginning with some things missing and then these things brought up later in proper fashion. The reference to the first Pokemon theme song brings out the joyful lyrics even more than I thought they could be. One of my favourite movies as a little kid was actually the direct-to-DVD sequel to Mewtwo Strikes Back, Mewtwo Returns, and there were so many surprising references. Also, I imagined one day proposing a live-action Pokemon film that had some serious violence, but I then thought about how that would maybe not go over well with critics who say Pokemon is a kid franchise, but now I can say director Rob Letterman accomplished that for me. Basically, it seems this movie was made for me.
The buddy-cop story is kind of familiar, following the smallest of clues in the most coincidental of places, but if it ain’t broke, right? Besides, even though there aren’t many actual Pokemon battles, we all got enough of that in the prior movies and video-games and TV show and comic books and everything. There are some Pokemon battles in here, but they aren’t the main part of the story. It seems to be more positive about the spirits of these creatures, emphasizing the main idea of Ryme City, with the least amount of violence between humans and Pokemon possible. This makes it so when Pikachu gets injured and Tim manages to find Pokemon willing to help, no one can say he should’ve been more skeptical about these Pokemon. Not once do we feel like the characters (the protagonists, anyway) are disregarding the feelings of these creatures for battling.
Detective Pikachu deserves to be called the biggest revolution of live-action-animation-crossover filmmaking in 31 years. Maybe it doesn’t have the most revolutionary story, but it’s so refreshing to see professionals with the Pokemon license be responsible with the material, loving the Pokemon world and doing everything they can to envelop that world into ours. The English dubbed show theme songs paint false narratives about what a hero is supposed to be, and the real hero is director Rob Letterman.