I was well into adulthood when the Pokémon craze struck in the late 90s, and I sat out the recent revival of Pokémon Go. In other words, I am oblivious to the whole thing and wouldn’t know a Cubone from a Licktung (I had to Google those). Therefore I entered into the new movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu from an entirely novice point of view. And what a treat it was!
Without any knowledge of the whole Pokémon universe, or its laws, I was surprised by how well I was able to comprehend the basic premise. This either says a lot about the simplicity of the franchise, or to the skill of the writers. Let’s settle on the latter, for risk of pissing off Pokémon fans.
For those playing at home, who are clueless to the series, Pokémon is a Japanese franchise owned by Nintendo. The basic premise is that Pokémon are fictional creatures that are captured and trained by humans for the purpose of sport… ie battles. It began as a video game and has grown into a major multimedia franchise encompassing manga, animated TV-series’, animated feature films, trading cards and merchandise.
It is a big deal and it would be ignorant of me to dismiss it as tosh. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first live-action adaptation of the franchise and is a spin-off from Nintendo’s recent game Detective Pikachu. The film is set in Ryme City, a sprawling utopia metropolis designed for humans and Pokémon to live harmoniously. Each human is partnered with a Pokémon. The central character is Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a young man who returns to Ryme following the death of his father, and he finds himself caught in a twisted murder mystery when his father’s Pokémon – Pikachu – finds him and suggests that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Tim is the first human to understand a Pokémon, thus creating a unique partnership and laying the foundation for a very unique family-friendly adventure.
Family films aren’t what they used to be and it’s hard to come by original standout pictures amongst the wash of generic tosh. But every once in a while a film breaks through offering something refreshing and smart, and Pokémon Detective Pikachu bursts onto the screen with undeniable vibrancy, presenting a type of richly textured film noir story that is usually bound to sci-fi noir for adults.
Justice Smith plays Tim, with Ryan Reynolds providing the voice of his partner, Pikachu, and they have been pitted against a highly ambitious and thoroughly captivating production design. The neon-lit cityscape is lifted straight out of Blade Runner, and its multi-creatured population is reminiscent of any given Star Wars story. Smith and Reynolds make for a strong alliance, with Reynolds’ involvement coming directly from casting heaven. Those same bankable personality traits that secured Deadpool’s legacy have given immeasurable appeal and weight to this charming adventure.
In turn Smith is an unlikely hero, with his lack of Hollywood gravitas being a major asset. He is perhaps best known as the geeky tech-head from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and with only a couple of other titles to his name, we are lucky to bare witness to his rise to stardom. He is very good and leads Detective Pikachu with authority. His character arc is well measured as he goes from introvert to hero with little effort.
Kathryn Newton (Lady Bird) and Bill Nighy (Love Actually) are welcome additions to the cast, lending classic archetypal performance that pay homage to the type of animated serials that Pokémon takes cues from. The best addition – as far as I’m concerned – is Ken Watanabe (Godzilla) as the police chief. This guy adds gravitas to anything he touches, and his presence gives the film a cheeky anime tone.
Director Rob Letterman sharpened his director’s knife on animated movies like Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens before honing his live-action skills on Gulliver’s Travels and Goosebumps. These titles have proven to be invaluable in bringing him to this point, where he has whittled a distinct and eccentric film that is grounded by an established franchise – while boasting a fresh and invigorating benchmark.
With its classic film noir stylings amalgamated with superbly visualised animation and a classic Manga attitude, Pokémon Detective Pikachu embodies the definition of family-friendly. Kids will be awed by its spectacle (they might ever get a good scare from it), while parents will appreciate the intricacies of its storytelling. It will thrill long-serving Pokémon fans, it provides an easy entry point for newcomers, it can be enjoyed as an expansion to the franchise’s universe, and it plays perfectly as a stand-alone fantasy adventure. It’s a winner, whichever way you choose to look at it…
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★★☆
‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ opens in Australian cinemas on May 9 and US cinemas on May 10.