Review: Detective Pikachu

Detective Pikachu posterMost modern blockbusters tend to over-rely on technology and digital effects to deliver their content, and few are able to do so successfully. When said technology is utilised to its fullest extent, the result can be spectacular, but the rest of the picture is often left looking pale by comparison.

Having received word of his estranged father’s death, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is travelling from his rural home to Ryme City, a place where humans live in harmony with creatures known as Pocket Monsters, or Pokémon for short. The metropolis is also a place where Tim feels most unhappy, for it is a constant reminder of his failed dream to become a Pokémon Trainer – even the spare bedroom at his Dad’s apartment is littered with Pokémon paraphernalia.

At said apartment, Tim encounters what is known as a Pikachu, a type of Pokémon distinguished by its yellow fur, red cheeks and lightning-shaped tail. Making this Pikachu more distinctive still is the deerstalker sitting atop its head, an addiction to coffee, and the ability to converse in fluent English with Tim (with the voice of Ryan Reynolds, no less). It’s a phenomenon no human has ever experienced before, and one that will prove beneficial to both parties.

Using this newfound line of communication, the Pikachu explains that he has amnesia, and came to be in the apartment after reading the underside of his hat, which listed the address of Tim’s late father; in turn, Tim reveals to Pikachu the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of his father. Between them, the duo deduce that Tim’s Dad is missing, rather than dead, and embark on a joint quest to both find him and help Pikachu recover his memories.

As its full title suggests, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is part of the monolithic Pokémon franchise, which was introduced to the world as a video-game in the Nineties. It’s not the only feature-length picture to carry the Pokémon brand, but it is the first to take place in a live-action setting, and to have the backing of a major Hollywood studio. Accordingly, the film has been produced with a large sum of money, and the producers have not hesitated in putting that money to use.

By far and away the biggest drawcard of Detective Pikachu is the visual effects. While the human characters (see below) and locations are all real – parts of London act as a rather obvious stand-in for the fictional Ryme City – all of the creatures have been concocted via computer-generated imagery. Even for non-Pokémon fans, it’s quite awe-inspiring to see these monsters and the like placed in real-life environments and interacting with real people. But more remarkable than that is how real the Pokémon look.

Det Pikachu - Newton, Smith
Kathryn Newton (left) and Justice Smith in Detective Pikachu

Detective Pikachu provides its various creatures with detailed textures and a spectrum of colours, contrasting greatly with other Pokémon media – the title character, for instance, does not possess the rubber-like skin of his video-game counterpart, with his body instead covered in short, thick, well-groomed hair that changes its hue when exposed to the elements. Other monsters who differ from their original designs include the fire-breathing Charizard, who has been given scales, and the balloon-like Jigglypuff, which has a stylish pink bouffant.

The cast belies the enormous budget bestowed upon Detective Pikachu. Aside from Ryan “Deadpool” Reynolds, the only names that could unquestionably be considered famous are Bill Nighy, playing entrepreneur Howard Clifford, and Japanese actor Ken Watanabe, who plays a senior member of Ryme City’s police force. Leads Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton perform admirably, but neither have the chemistry nor the charisma required to carry a blockbuster film, which is unfortunate.

In terms of the screenplay, Detective Pikachu is a disappointment. The more alert viewer will notice the plot bears a striking similarity to Zootopia, which also had its main protagonist journey to a cross-species metropolis, and featured a device which turns sentient beings into crazed, violent aggressors. Additionally, the film does a haphazard job of introducing its world, and its characters, in the first act, to the point where newcomers to the Pokémon franchise are left completely baffled.

Fans of the property need not fear though, since Detective Pikachu is more than willing to accommodate their needs, doing so by providing plenty of throwbacks and the like. The iconic theme from the original Pokémon series can be heard twice – first during a news bulletin, which utilises the keyboard riff, and later via a character singing the lyrics – while the franchise’s more popular monsters are given cameos, if not substantial roles that assist, or impede, the protagonists in their quest.

There’s no arguing that Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a monumental achievement, impressively placing its unique, inimitable lifeforms into live-action environments; yet the picture is not the resounding success it should be, with both the cast and script letting it down. Sadly, it’s a film only Pokémon fans can truly appreciate.

2.5 stars

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