Two takes on ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 9:00pm

Warner Bros

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NOSELL

The video game movie is a genre that precedes itself, and not for good reason. Video games are an inherently interactive medium and film is not; you do the math there. Part of the joy of playing video games is the ability to control something (in most cases, a character) and then have that something romp around the world of the game — in essence, a digital playground. Darting from Florence rooftop to rooftop as a Renaissance assassin is infinitely more fun than watching Michael Fassbender’s stunt double do the same in the “Assassin’s Creed” movie.

While some video games have compelling narratives and spectacle the same as a movie — take the “Uncharted” series for example — most have a standard good versus evil plot that exists only to tie its characters to its world. You play “Street Fighter” to make Chun-Li kick the shit out of your friend’s fighter, not to obsess over cutscenes stitched together to make an (often poor) excuse for a story mode. Even returning to the example of “Uncharted,” the movie-like quality of which has attracted a Hollywood production, the whole point is that you’re basically playing a movie. Shoving it onto the silver screen makes it no different than your garden-variety action blockbuster.

All these trappings of a video game movie were almost certain to set up “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” for failure. Battles between fantastical little creatures, the core mechanic of “Pokémon” games, function entirely on a turn-based system: One player acts while the other has to wait, and vice versa. This would be nigh impossible to port over to the real-time nature of movies. Yet somehow, some way, “Detective Pikachu” manages to capture not the mechanics of any “Pokémon” title, but the emotional experience playing one elicits.

The best decision they made regarding “Detective Pikachu” was choosing not to adapt any plot already covered in the wider “Pokémon” universe — the anime has already done that to death. Instead, they took the fundamental principle of a low-profile spinoff game of the same name and ran with it. You have Pokémon, you have humans. They coexist. There’s a special Pikachu, he’s a detective. From just these blasé story elements, the film finds something special.

When I first saw the trailer for “Detective Pikachu,” I was very much put off by the realism of it all, the scary scaliness of movie Charizard clashing with the simply killer design of “Pokémon Red” that I fell in love with all those years ago. But actually seeing the movie and how it decided to bring these Pokémon to life (which are admittedly horrifying; I mean, look at any Pokédex entry for a ‘mon that isn’t cute and cuddly and you’ll be met with tales of lost dead forest children turning into spirits) very much quelled that initial distaste. The more Pokémon that populated the screen, the more I thought, “Damn, they totally would be like that in real life.” You have something like Lickitung, a Pokémon with a constantly exposed tongue larger than its body, given a short scene where it makes use of that tongue, and then you realize it is fundamentally disgusting even as an 8-bit sprite.

Even with the few frightening designs, it was an absolute treat to see these Pokémon scuttle, scamper and saunter in and around the central location of Ryme City. Greninja was as ferocious as Bulbasaur was adorable. There’s even some great action scenes thrown in that stay grounded in the source material. I was transfixed by an underground battle between Blastoise and Gengar that saw the latter sending out a barrage of familiar moves like Shadow Ball, warping ghastly around the arena as Blastoise spun around on its shell, using its water cannons to dispel of the creepy Gengar clones.

“Detective Pikachu” does have its fair number of flaws. For every genuine emotion shared by the two lead characters, Tim (Justice Smith, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) and Lucy (Kathryn Newton, “Blockers”), there’s a hamfisted line or reaction right around the corner. Ryan Reynolds (“Deadpool 2”) fully invested himself in voice acting the titular role, but oftentimes the script puts a little too much stock in him, and his constant one-liners start to lose steam. However, for all the shortcomings on the human side of the film, the Pokémon more than make up for it.

I think the best review of “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” I can give is that I spent 90 percent of the movie pointing at the screen and giddily naming off all the various Pokémon I saw to my friends. “Emolga! Octillery! Rufflet!” I felt like a kid again, and I loved every second of it. It might be the most average movie, but “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is the most fun moviegoing experience I’ve had in years.

— Cassandra Mansuetti

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is a great technical showpiece that proves — along with Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Jungle Book” — another staple of millennial and Gen Z childhood can be brought to life on the big screen, even if the film’s plot structure leaves much to be desired.

In a post-“Sonic the Hedgehog”-live-action-movie-trailer world, we can all breathe a sigh of relief in the comfort that comes with the comfort that comes from knowing they didnt fall into the same trap of bad and unfaithful CGI. The Pokémon in “Pokémon” are great. They’re cute when they’re supposed to be cute, they’re tough when they’re supposed to be tough and all the time they’re as hilariously linguistically Hodored as we ever could have asked. There’s a lot to be happy with in this introduction to a cinematic Pokémon universe, even if it does lean on modern storytelling tropes a little too predictably.

The escalation in the third act of “Detective Pikachu” is disappointing. The movie falls into the same trap that brought down the first “Fantastic Beasts” movie — a transition away from a small, self-contained story about a few characters and their own personal quests, and toward a big blockbuster flick with world-ending danger and city-saving heroics. “Detective Pikachu” was an interesting, character-driven movie for about sixty minutes. Around that mark, it’s revealed that, for Tim to complete his personal mission of finding his father, he will have to defeat a villain that threatens the entire city (and ostensibly the entire world when they wake up the next morning).

The ever-expanding plot arc of “Detective Pikachu” is now another example of big-studio cinematic universe-itus wilting away a perfectly good trio of characters when they force them to save the world. The advent of the MCU and its twenty-something movies of fire and brimstone seem to have convinced us all that every movie’s plot has to put the fate of the world on the line. “Detective Pikachu”’s Ryme City is an engaging and vibrant enough world without the possibility of its total destruction. Characters can introduce you to these worlds even if their task isn’t to save everyone’s day. The movie lost much of its interest when it decided that Tim’s character-driven arc, which had been guiding the plot up to that point, wasn’t enough anymore.

These gripes aren’t all that relevant, though, since “Detective Pikachu” is a movie aimed at giving kids a chance to see their favorite Japanese battle monsters come to life in the real world. The script wasn’t written to be a cinematic juggernaut — that wasn’t ever the filmmaker’s agenda — but I stand by the sentiment that a plot structured like that of “Detective Pikachu” is dangerous since it only further entrenches this idea that all films have to implicate the lives of everyone in the world to have a point.

Introducing a new generation of moviegoers to the big screen with flick after flick of down-and-out underdog facing off versus the all-powerful essence of evil, hell-bent on destroying the world for whatever goddamn reason (probably because they love hell and darkness) maybe isn’t a good way to bring them into the cinema’s fold. It creates false expectations of what a satisfying story must be, and leads to further erosion of storytelling in the medium. This isn’t a problem of “Detective Pikachu”’s making, and the film shouldn’t have to shoulder all of the blame. It’s a much larger industry issue. Hopefully, it’s one that will start to get addressed now that we are in and out of the “Endgame.”

In the end, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” delivers on a lot of what anyone could want from a Pokémon movie. It’s a great way to spend an hour and forty-five for a family movie night, and it should succeed because of it. It’s a shame Danny Devito never got tapped up for the role of the man behind the little yellow rat, but what are you going to do?

— Stephen Satarino

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“Pokémon Detective Pikachu”

Ann Arbor 20 + IMAX, Goodrich Quality 16

Warner Bros. Pictures