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Pokemon Detective Pikachu Movie Review

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“You were the chosen one!” I holler at the slashed and burning body of Detective Pikachu, “It was said you would lead a generation of videogame based films, not follow in their footsteps. You were to bring lighthearted comedy and a half decent plot to the masses, not leave them broken and defeated.

“PIKA- PIII” The film screeches back, its eyes flashing red.

“You were my most anticipated movie of the year, Detective Pikachu. I chose you.”

It felt like yesterday. A sunny day in the year 2016, I turned on my phone to some truly exciting news. A bidding war was waging over the rights to a Pokemon movie. Sony, Warner Bros and, Legendary Pictures were all attempting to outbid each other for the opportunity to produce the first “Hollywood” adaptation of a Pokemon film. From the very beginning I was pulling for Legendary to emerge the winner and in July 2016 they did. So I was very happy. Then it was announced that Alex Hirsch, best known for his Disney Channel show Gravity Falls was co-writing the script – I was happier. I must have missed the news that Rob Letterman (Shark Tale, Monsters Vs. Aliens, Goosebumps) was tapped to direct, that would’ve given me pause, but, all in all, I remained hopeful for the movie. Like many people I was impressed by the trailers, and saw the amount of work that went into the world building and creature design. 

The point I want to stress, is that I am a fan of Pokémon, I’ve played almost every mainline Pokémon game, I was raised on Pokémon Stadium for the Nintendo 64, then Coliseum and XD for the GameCube, and Pokémon Emerald for the Gameboy Advance. My first level 100 was a Scizor I got from another kids GameShark at a YMCA summer camp. I wanted to like this movie, okay? I did. But I couldn’t

I feel like I sound like a broken record on this site but… The script was bad. Like, really bad. Jawdroppingly bad. Bad in ways I thought films as a whole had outgrown. But first let’s go over the positives.

Director Rob Letterman has my respect. This was a monumental undertaking; he has a huge responsibility to old and new Pokémon fans, children and adults who are just now discovering Pokémon through games like Pokémon Go, as well as lifelong fans who came in through the original anime and video games. It’s a tough balance to strike, I’m sure. That’s why the choice of a Detective Pikachu movie, while strange on its face, is actually a great choice. It gives the film makers a freedom that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Freedom from the expectations placed on them by decades of handheld games and anime series, all centered on cookie cutter protagonists who together define what most people expect Pokémon to be. Catch the Pokémon, beat the Gym Leaders, stop this cycles Team, the end. Basing the 1st live action Pokémon movie on a spin-off series that while released in Japan in 2016 didn’t see a worldwide audience until 2018, 1 year before the film adaptation would see theaters, is a bold move. Most of the people I’ve spoken to don’t even know the movie is based on a game, which makes sense seeing as how it only sold 470,000 copies worldwide, compared to the 16 million copies Sun and Moon sold. 

Now the film makers have the chance to make a movie that doesn’t feature the typical Pokémon protagonist, with a genre many people do not associate with Pokémon at all. This is a Detective mystery, not an action adventure film. It features a protagonist that works in insurance and actively avoids Pokémon. It’s a very different kind of Pokémon world from the one most people know. It’s a big risk. That takes a massive amount of courage, before we even get to the fact that this 1st big Pokémon movie is live action. 

They knock the Pokémon designs out of the park, very rarely did a ‘Mon seem out of place, which is saying something. RJ Palmer was hired to help with designing the live action Pokémon after the production designer googled “Realistic Pokémon” and found his Deviant Art page. His designs while definitely far more realistic than the ones that appear in the film, helped the crew in some very clear ways, just look at Charizard or Treecko.

So, where did it go wrong? Well, while Alex Hirsch was involved in some way at the very beginning, “very early brainstorming conversations” according to Hirsch himself, he left just as soon without ever writing a page of script. The actual writing team ended up being a lot bigger than the Alex Hirsch and Nicole Perlman duo early reporting led us to believe. Between the story and the screenplay we have 5 unique voices working on the final product. Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel), Benji Samit & Dan Hernandez (1600 Penn, The Tick) worked on the initial story and later were joined by the film’s Director and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Monster Truck) to write the actual screenplay. Not to say the number of people working on this script had anything to do with the mangled wreck of a plot this film has but, something clearly happened between the story phase and the screenplay phase.

The general story is simple; Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a former Pokémon enthusiast who has since given up on his dreams of being a Pokémon trainer, going as far as not having a Pokémon partner of any kind. This is an action that, understandably, makes Tim stand out quite a bit. He’s bitter at his father for choosing his work as a detective over his own Son, so when news reaches Tim that his father has gone missing and he finds an amnesiac Pikachu (Ryan Renolds) that only Tim can understand in his father’s old apartment he begins the search for his missing father. Now I’m going to start talking about the movie. That means *Small Spoilers*

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Tim is the most passive protagonist since Jyn Erso of Star Wars: Rouge One fame. The film’s story consists of very little real detective work instead filling its hour and forty four minute runtime with conveniences, coincidences, and heavy exposition, the type that take all agency away from the characters and puts them on rails from one location to the next, talking to a guy who gives them information on the next guy to find and talk to, so that they can get information on a lab that has camera footage of a lady that can give more information. It was boring. This is where the downsides of taking the Detective Pikachu risk come in. The main location of the film, Ryme City, is a visionary new type of Pokémon city. One where battling is against the law, Poke balls are banned, and Pokémon are free to walk and work alongside their human owners. This means, with Pokémon battles severely limited, the writers need to really go in on the mystery solving aspects of the story, when that fails, the movie doesn’t have much left to save it.

This film devotes so much time to exposition that it really doesn’t have many fleshed out human characters. The one real supporting character Tim gets is Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) an intern at a Ryme City news network. Lucy comes in already knowing far more than either of our protagonists which means she spends most of her screen time explaining things to them. This means we skip over important character work (and detective work) in order throw more exposition at the audience. This makes the movie feel much longer than it actually is.

Another problem is that narratively Detective Pikachu borrows a lot from the main series videogames but, not where it really needed to. For example, our antagonist, Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is straight out of a Pokémon game, he’s up there with Archie and Maxie as far as ridiculous plots go but, he doesn’t have a Team, a staple in Pokémon games. Teams give the plot in the games a real sense of scale and give the player something familiar to associate with the villains while adding to the mystery. Who is in charge of this organization? What is their ultimate plan? By the time act 3 rolls around the script has no choice but to have our plot twist antagonist explain things to the audience that should have been covered somewhere in the second act. While I’m 100% down with adapting Detective Pikachu for the screen, the script itself probably should have mirrored the pacing of a mainline Pokémon game instead of the dialogue heavy point and click style of Detective. 

When I left the theatre I was comparing this movie to those old straight to video Scooby Doo movies. Zombie Island and Witch’s Curse are movies that I actually really enjoy and think hold up pretty well. These are also mystery centric movies generally set in a single location with a core cast of characters that are all given a part to play in the solving of the mystery. These Scooby Doo movies took their time setting up a conflict, introducing characters, and most importantly drip feeding information to the audience in a way that felt rewarding and deliberate, they gave the viewer’s ample time to piece things together with the Mystery Gang. These films are leagues ahead of Pikachu. Which is not something I expected to leave the theatre thinking.

Title Movie Info
DIRECTOR: Rob Letterman
STUDIO: Warner Bros.
GENRE: Family, Adventure
MPAA: PG
RELEASE DATE: May 10 2019
AUTHOR: Kaari McBride
Kaari McBride Kaari McBride was born on a cold winter's night in Joliet, Illinois. Growing up he held a strong interest in science, before realizing science was just math in stealth mode. "I'm too cool for that!" He declared, before joining the drama club in highschool. He went to college for Film where he focused on screen writing, though not quite enough to stay there. He currently works at a Movie Theater. His goal is to create an animated series.

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