Conventional wisdom dictates that there are two kinds of people when it comes to Pokémon: people who were already too old when the phenomenon hit to ever give a damn, or people who spent their entire lives consumed by a phenomenon that seemed like it would remain a Pog-like fad and yet has shown no sign of slowing down since then. (Sometimes, people from the first group wind up in the second group through the transitive properties of reproduction, which dictate that you have absolutely no say over what will obsess your kids.) Officially, I’m part of the first group, but there was a brief period at the height of Pokémon fever in the late’ 90s where my friends and I were simultaneously too old to be fucking with it and too young to be letting that kind of fad fully pass us by.
So, in that sense I come to Pokémon without much of a basis of fandom but a certain ingrained knowledge of at least 150 of the little critters. Pokémon has always more or less skewed young (or at least it did until everyone was, briefly and sometimes fatally, obsessed with Pokémon Go) enough that I never really needed to pay attention, but it has also been mired in the kind of capitalist world-building that ensures that, should there need to be a gritty reboot at some point down the line, there would be plenty of raw material to build it with. And so, here we are, inevitably, in the year of our Lord 2019, faced with the dismal prospect of a movie called Pokémon Detective Pikachu that, for all intents and purposes, is not nearly as bad as it should be. It’s not good, certainly, but its idea of not good follows a strikingly similar to so many not-good attempts at launching IP franchises that the fact that a movie about Pikachu wearing a little hat and being a detective being merely not good is, in fact, great news.
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) receives news that his estranged father, detective Harry Goodman, has been killed in a car crash. Returning to his home in the big city, Tim discovers in fact that his father’s partner was a Pikachu (voiced, naturally, by Ryan Reynolds) — and that, unlike every other Pokémon in his world, he can understand him when he speaks. Pikachu is convinced that Tim’s father did not die, even if his own memory was wiped in the accident. He needs Tim’s help to uncover the truth, which eventually leads him to plucky reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who has uncovered a scientific conspiracy involving vials of purple mist that make Pokémon flip out that leads all the way up to the most powerful company in the city.
This shit is basically Mad Libs for Making Money at this point: dead dad, evil scientist, wisecracking sidekick, plucky love interest who is actually saving our protagonist, a big third-act kerfuffle in a city centre… I can think of half-a-dozen movies from last year that hit more or less the same beats (Rampage, Ready Player One and Venomare three) in almost exactly the same mildly unsatisfying way. It’s as if this particular plot is the one that the universe gives you when you buy a starter kit to a big, noisy franchise. Here, it sits untouched and unmolested, a perfectly preserved example of what you have characters do when what your characters do is the least of your worries. The banality of the plot and the characters that come with it are unfortunately an enormous hurdle in enjoying what Pokémon Detective Pikachu has on offer, surprisingly because the film does a surprisingly great job at establishing its world before squandering it on some beige, generic shit from a screenwriting textbook.
It’s unexpectedly gorgeous, for one; Pokémon Detective Pikachu was inexplicably shot on film by John Mathieson (Gladiator, Logan, Mary Queen of Scots) and while 35mm itself does not a gorgeous movie make (pretty much every movie that looks like a chunk of ass made prior to 2008 was also shot on film), Detective Pikachu’s visuals have a weight and an atmosphere that I have to admit far surpassed my expectations. That also goes for the integration of the Pokémon in the real world. Though the designs haven’t really been altered to something more gritty and realistic (skin and fur textures have been tweaked), the Pokémon feel more real and integrated than a majority of CGI critters have been in the past. There’s definitely the heft of practical effects felt through Pokémon Detective Pikachu in a way that you rarely see now. Its world-building is surprisingly seamless considering, you know, that it’s a movie about an electric mouse with a little hat who throws PG-rated Deadpool wisecracks around.
In the end, however, no amount of craft and dedication can overcome the fact that Pokémon Detective Pikachu’s base is a formless slurry of tired ideas and wafer-thin characters. Its human leads are more or less anonymous, with Smith playing a slight variation on the wishy-washy dork he played in the last Jurassic World movie and Newton being saddled with corny, rat-a-tat His Girl Friday dialogue that lands with a thud. (The whole thing about witty repartee is that it goes both ways; if you’re yelling old-timey journalist patter into the abyss, you just look stupid.) Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy are both wasted in supporting parts, and the film generally does little to make us care about anyone but its furry little protagonist. Though Reynolds’ one-liners are more or less just gentler, less ass-centric variations on his Deadpool bon mots, the mix between cuddly cute animation and acerbic sarcasm makes Pikachu the only mildly likeable character in the film.
I suppose what Pokémon Detective Pikachu truly lacks is a sense of fun. It’s cute, it’s colourful, it’s easy to follow — but it seems forced, somehow, like something that everyone involved needs to get out of the way. People don’t usually apply themselves when they need to get something out of the way —they do the bare minimum — which makes this particular bit of homework doubly strange. From a technical standpoint, it does everything right; from a narrative standpoint, it’s out to lunch. ■
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is in theatresFriday, May 10th. Watch the trailer here: