REVIEW: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

If there was a definitive list of bad rules for American studio filmmaking, one of them – probably wedged between “always put the word Girl in the title of a female-led thriller” and “the lowest common denominator still can’t go past a fat joke” – would have to be “keep making films based on videogames – one day it will pay off”.

Hollywood has done its best to adapt videogames to cinema for many years, leading to a field of big screen corpses littered with box office disasters like Street Fighter: The Movie (1994), Super Mario Bros (1993), Assassin’s Creed (2016), Max Payne (2008), and numerous others. Even those that managed to find a reasonable – even profitable – audience felt critically compromised on one level or another: Warcraft (2016), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), to name a few. To my mind the American film industry has successfully pulled off a valid videogames film only twice: with last year’s release of Brad Peyton’s Rampage – dumb as a bag of hammers, but gloriously absurd – and with Paul W.S. Anderson’s long-running franchise of Resident Evil movies (2002-2016) – also somewhat silly, but hugely effective in a fun and pulpy way.

Against my expectations, Hollywood has now pulled off a third: Rob Letterman’s colourful, funny, and surprisingly faithful Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. It adapts the Nintendo DS videogame, but significantly it attempts to render the gaming franchise’s cartoon-like animals into a live-action setting for the first time.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a young insurance clerk who has separated from his private detective father after their relationship broke apart. When he learns his father has died in a car accident, Tim travels to Ryme City to close his affairs and gather his belongings. There he encounters his father’s former detective partner: a talking Pikachu (think of a large electrified mouse, voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who insists that Tim’s father is still alive.

Detective Pikachu is a relatively straight-forward, mainstream family adventure film, of a kind with which most audiences will be very familiar – even if you don’t have kids, you obviously once were a kid. (Not to mention the 30-year-old parents of today were the target market of the animated Pokémon: The First Movie (1999) 20 years ago). There is not much in the film’s story to surprise or shock, although the animated violence of the film’s climax is – upon observation at the preview screening – a little much for particularly young Pokémon enthusiasts.

Where the film excels is in its tone and dialogue, and in its production design. First up, the use of Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu is a master stroke. While it obviously does not reflect the scabrous dialogue in his popular Deadpool films, it does reflect a similar sensibility and humour, and the screenplay does a strong line in jokes aimed for all ages rather than just for children or formed as pop culture references for the adults. Justice Smith does a fine job as Tim Goodman and pulls off the difficult task of performing against a non-existent co-star during the film’s shoot. The film’s other performances are relatively generic, including somewhat under-enthused turns by Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy.

The film’s design work is exceptional. One of the key mistakes that many adaptations make is abandoning pre-existing design work for new and different takes. It is on one level an understandable decision to make: adapt something faithfully and the resulting work is a hit, and the credit for the work’s success will likely go to the original’s creators – in this case Pokémon designer Ken Sugimori, whose charming designs helped make the original Gameboy videogame such a success. Change and mix things around, and if your adaptation is a hit then you can claim it was your changes that were the critical element. Director Rob Letterman and his production team, likely thanks in part to some strong brand control from the Pokémon Company, keeps things identical to both the videogames and the long-running animé series. They have photo-realistic textures, but there are remarkably faithful to the more than two decades’-worth of material that has come before. It is a smart move and helps to make this a wonderfully bright and attractive universe in which to spend an hour or two. Of course which such vivid colours saturating the screen, production designer Nigel Phelps provides appropriate levels of colour to the design of Ryme City. It is an explosion of hues and neon glows, with streets littered with bilingual signage, skyscrapers that seem inspired and lifted from multiple real cities around the world, and a nicely seedy noir crime edge throughout. All in all, it looks and feels like Blade Runner for the 10-year-old set.

The film looks good, comes packed with plenty of laughs, well-animated visual effects, and a charming fidelity to its source material. In the extremely haphazard field of videogame adaptations, Detective Pikachu feels like the first unqualified success to date.

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