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Film Review: 'Pokemon Detective Pikachu' falls short of expectations

Pokemon Detective Pikachu

Director Rob Letterman is clearly the right choice for a Pokemon movie, having spent most of his career on animated or live action/CGI features aimed at a youthful audience. The concept, however, is an odd one: an adventure/comedy mixing live action and animated characters, based on a Pokemon video game, parodying a typical 1940s noir detective story. The apparently incompatible elements come together surprisingly well, however, and any flaws in the storyline do not come from the original concept. 

The complicated backstory requires a fair amount of introduction, which the film tries to make both understandable and entertaining. We are in Ryme City, a quasi-Japanese metropolis in which, by the machinations of the town’s eccentric founder, Howard Cooper (Bill Nighy), allows humans to co-exist peacefully and symbiotically with the countless forms of Pokemon who reside there. CGI allows for realistic street scenes featuring humans working, travelling, and riding trains alongside a wide variety of Pokemon beings. In this universe, humans formed working partnerships with carefully chosen Pokemon creatures. 

So it was with police detective Harry Goodman, who was recently involved in an apparent fatal accident. His adult son, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), tries to unofficially investigate his estranged father’s death, in partnership with a Pikachu who, unlike every other of his kind, speaks perfect English, more or less in the manner of Sam Spade. The Pikachu suffers from amnesia and is unable to explain how he came to talk, why only Tim can hear his voice, or why he is so driven to discover the truth about Detective Goodman’s death. The resulting investigation leads to very little clarity until the conclusion, only the uncovering of more mysteries, and of a sinister plot to undermine the stability of the Pokemon world through a perversion of science. This grim narrative of human evil unfolds in tandem with the daily activities of the various fanciful Pokemon characters, which makes the whole thing eccentric and a bit creepy. It’s Roger Rabbit with the noir aspect made far more seriously noir, and the cartoons at once more aggressively cute, and more potentially lethal. 

Having almost no experience with the Pokemon phenomenon, I was fortunate in having as viewing companions half a dozen children of my acquaintance, well able to fill in the blanks. Their initial reaction focused on Pikachu’s voice, provided by actor Ryan Reynolds. “They gave Pikachu a very deep voice,” remarked one eleven-year-old moviegoer, with obvious disapproval. “It doesn’t match the way he looks.” This seemed to be the consensus, and in fact, the use of an adult, male voice, rather than the expected chirps and trills, is distracting and silly without being particularly funny after the initial surprise of hearing it. A plot twist ultimately explains the phenomenon, but very late in the film, leaving viewers to assume for the first 95 minutes or so that it was intended as either a joke, or an ill-considered revision of the character. Further consultation revealed other concerns. “It’s scary sometimes,” allowed one viewer, aged seven, “and some of the things made me jump.” The film is, in fact, a little intense and startling for younger children who would normally be part of its target audience, although not gruesome enough to exclude them. As the ten-year-old made clear to me, Pokemon has always had its dark and violent side.

A genuine problem is with the plot, which is too complex and intricate for young viewers, even allowing for the background knowledge of Pokemon necessary to follow much of the storyline. It appears the movie is made on age-based levels: the youngest can simply enjoy the antics of the Pokemon characters and their human companions; the true Pokemon aficionados can appreciate the development of the Pokemon universe; and elders in the party have the detective story itself. The plot twists, the ongoing humour, and especially the references to 40s noir detective genre make the film more palatable to adults. Taking your kids to see it will be a fairly painless experience.