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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu

Let's chalk this up as another movie that was not made for me.  Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is made solely for the masses of fans who have made the Nintendo video games, anime, card games and various other spin offs such a massive success.  It's a chance to see the creatures from the games in a more realistic design, and interact with human actors.  That's fine.  But for someone like me, who has never gotten into the franchise in any of its numerous forms, the movie offers very little aside from a few snarky one liners from Ryan Reynolds, who voices Pikachu, the most merchandised rodent since Mickey Mouse.

My main exposure to Pokemon stems from the brief time in 1999 when I worked at a Software Etc. store at my local mall.  It was the height of the fandom, the first anime movie was a couple months away from hitting US theaters, and at least at the store I worked at, a vast majority of the stock we moved every day was Pokemon-related merchandise.  We received numerous visits and calls each day, asking if we had the dolls or the trading cards in stock.  Even with the at the time recent launch of the Sega Dreamcast game console in September of that year, people mostly wanted Pokemon-related goods.  The games themselves are a Japanese Role Playing-style adventure, where you wander the world, collecting the vast amounts of creatures to battle other Pokemon.  I can see the appeal, as I am a huge fan of the Japanese Role Playing genre to this day, but I just never got into the series for whatever reason.  Now we have this movie, which is based specifically on the Detective Pikachu video game, a spin off of the main series.  So, I guess this movie can be considered a spin off of the earlier films.

All the earlier movies have been animated and made in Japan, then brought over here and dubbed in English.  This is the first time an American studio has tried to make an original Pokemon film, and the first one to be in live action with CG monsters.  This is largely what the hype for the film has been about, and if you're a fan, I'm sure you'll get excited about seeing the various creatures interpreted in more realistic looking CG.  But to me, outside of Pikachu himself (who looks good, and is well animated), the other creatures just didn't seem to look all that real.  We see them walking about the settings alongside human actors, but they never seem to occupy any kind of space.  Some almost look like they're just kind of floating there.  It's also disappointing how most of the characters taken from the games are given so little to do.  I would say a good 95% or so are regulated to simple walk-on cameos.  Fans can point at the screen when they briefly see their favorite monster.  The little monsters don't really interact with the human actors.  Heck, the most Pikachu ever does is climb up on the shoulder of his human friend.  The movie simply never fully created the illusion that the actors and the CG designs were existing in the same space to me.

In a situation like this, I look to the script to maybe offer some wit or intelligence, but as I mentioned earlier, the only bright spots are a few lines that Reynolds gets to spout off, which sound improvised.  The story itself is kind of an ungainly combination of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Zootopia.  It involves a young man named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who lives in a world where humans and Pokemon co-exist peacefully with one another.  His father is a detective who was investigating a mystery surrounding Pokemon suddenly turning savage and wild when exposed to a mysterious gas, until he supposedly died in a suspicious car crash.  Tim thinks he's still alive, and goes to the city to search for clues.  The only lead he has is his father's Pikachu, who was working on the case with him, but has amnesia.  Stranger still, Tim can understand what the Pikachu is saying, as humans and Pokemon cannot usually speak to each other.   The two must work together to solve the mystery behind Tim's father, and who is behind all the Pokemon turning savage.

It's an okay premise for a kid's mystery story, but the story never goes all that deep.  The movie gives us little reason to care about Tim and his plight to find his father.  We get some talk about how he was distant with his dad, and never had that good of a relationship with him, but it never quite reaches the emotional level that it should.  As for the mystery itself, it couldn't be more blatantly obvious who the villain is if the character walked on screen with a flashing sign that said, "Hi, I'm the Villain!!".  Their ultimate plot involves spraying a deadly gas onto a crowd of people from giant balloons during a city parade.  And yes, you would be correct in saying that plot was also used in Tim Burton's original Batman back in 1989.  It made me hope that the movie would really go off the rails, and just throw in Jack Nicholson's Joker being the true mastermind of it all, but no such luck.

This is one of those movies that will appeal only to people who have played the Detective Pikachu video game, are fans of the franchise, or nostalgic for it.  That's perfectly fine.  If you fall under one of those categories, go and have fun.  I just was wishing that director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) and his four credited screenwriters would maybe add in some interesting characters or clever dialogue to the mix.  But, what we get here is mostly going through the motions.  There's a female reporter (Kathryn Newton) who is also trying to uncover the mystery, and acts as another person for Tim to talk to, but she never grows into a character worth caring about, and the movie itself would be no different without her.  We have the very talented Bill Nighy cashing a paycheck here as someone who exists mostly to spout exposition.  Ken Watanabe also shows up as the head of the police department, but he mostly gets to speak in cop movie cliches, and say lines like "Your dad was a legend on the force".

Even though I am not up on my Pokemon, the movie never confused me.  It simply disappointed me that it didn't try to do more for people who have not devoted time to learning about the characters and their world.  It's total fan service through and through, and that should be more than enough to tell you if you should spend your money or not.

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