We live in a very strange time for blockbuster cinema. For whatever reason it has become both culturally popular and financially successful to mine what used to be known as nerd culture for the next big hit. And, it works. I mean, we seem to be living in a world where the most successful film of all time is going to be an insane Avengers movie where a raccoon steals a magic stone out of Natalie Portman. Things are weird. So, it really shouldn’t be surprising that someone has finally tired to bring the world of Pokemon, one of the most successful media brands of all time, to life in live action. There have obviously been a lot of animated versions of the Pokemon phenomenon, but for whatever reason the company that holds all creative control of the brand has been hesitant to venture into live action films. And, to test the water, they’ve decided to seemingly jump ahead several steps, and give us a movie where Pikachu is a detective. There’s apparently a lot of strange internal politics about why this movie got made when it did, and why a more traditional Pokemon movie wasn’t made initially, and that’s all fascinating, but I’m not a hundred percent sure it’s entirely accurate. But, regardless of the backstory, we’ve been given a film called Detective Pikachu, an adaptation of a video game of the same name, which just also happens to be a pastiche of film noir that was shot on actual film. Every bit of information about this movie makes it even more insane. And I’m amazed that it ended up working as well as it did.
Detective Pikachu is set in the world of Pokemon that has been established for almost 25 years now, with some key differences. It takes place in Rhyme City, a city that was built on the foundation of human/Pokemon integration, where there are no battles, and Pokemon are essentially people’s familiars, just hanging out and cohabiting with them. The film follows a young man named Tim who has pushed Pokemon out of his life, as much as humanly possible, until he gets word that his father has died in an accident. His estranged father was a detective in the Rhyme City police department, and Tim has to travel to Rhyme City in order to get some closure about his father. And, in the process he meets a young journalist named Lucy who was convinced that Tim’s father Harry was the key to breaking a big story she’s been working on. But, Tim ignores that, and tries to go about his time in the City, until he finds a Pikachu inside his father’s apartment. And, what’s even more noteworthy about that is the fact that this Pikachu speaks English. Tim panics about this, but is eventually able to figure out that this Pikachu was his father’s former partner, and even though the Pikachu has amnesia, he’s convinced that Harry is still alive.
So, Tim and Pikachu begin investigating the events surrounding Harry’s death, quickly finding themselves embroiled in a conspiracy that involves a strange chemical known as R that when given to Pokemon causes them to turn feral. Through that they travel all around the city, from dealing with Harry’s Mr. Mime informant to eventually ending up at an underground fight-club. And, things are made much more complicated when Tim and Pikachu are brought before the man who essentially runs Rhyme City, a businessman named Howard Clifford who tells them that he hired Harry to investigate his evil son Roger who has captured the most powerful Pokemon in the world, Mewtwo, and is using him for nefarious purposes. So, with that information, Tim teams up with Lucy and her Psyduck, and they begin investigating Mewtwo and R, eventually realizing that Roger appears to be genetically manipulating Pokemon for his own gain, and in the process infuriated Mewtwo. But, that ends up not being quite true. Eventually our heroes realize that Howard is behind everything, and that he’s found a method to put his consciousness into Pokemon, using Mewtwo, and wants to put every human in Rhyme City into the body of their familiar Pokemon. But, out heroes fight back, and are eventually able to thwart Howard, and in the process learn that this process had been done to Harry, and that his consciousness has been hidden inside Pikachu the entire time. The story then ends with Tim deciding to stay in Rhyme City, reconcile with his dad, and embrace a new life with Pokemon.
I had literally no idea what to expect from this movie. I was very much the age to be incredibly into Pokemon when it first came out, and for quite a while I was obsessed with it and its world. I played the games, struggled to understand the card game, watched the anime, and generally obsessed over it. But, eventually, it just kind of faded away. I still have quite a bit of nostalgic affection for the property, and will occasionally dip into those old games to recapture some youthful fun, but by and large the Pokemon franchise doesn’t mean a whole lot to me anymore. But, when I heard that they’d be making a live action Pokemon movie, and that it would follow a detective Pikachu voiced by Ryan Reynolds, I had to admit that my curiosity was piqued. This movie seemed too weird to be real, some strange project that couldn’t possibly survive. And yet, I feel like it more or less worked. This is a movie that proves there are certain entertainment properties that don’t need some sort of origin. It doesn’t waste time explaining what a Pokemon is, or how their world works, it just kind of dumps you in assuming that you know what’s going on. And, largely, I think that that worked wonders for the movie. It didn’t have to get too bogged down in lore and could just tell a fun story, the type of thing you’d assume would be like the fourth of fifth Pokemon movie. It wasn’t a perfect movie by any stretch, featuring a borderline nonsensical ending, some spotty acting in places, and a few too many twists, but it mostly worked. The world was well-realized, the effects were shockingly good (while a little unnerving at times) and it just generally was a very efficient and fun little action movie that got you so swept up in the story that it was telling that you didn’t even really notice how utterly strange it is.
And, one of the things that I think is maybe most strange about it, and that I most connected with, was the fact that they decided to make this movie a film noir. Now, I learned after the fact that it was actually based on something specific, not just a weird idea, but I still find the idea to make a noir with Pokemon strange. The movie that I most had on the mind while watching this movie (and possibly because I just discussed it on Cinematic Century) was Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Now, I did not enjoy Detective Pikachu nearly as much as I do Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but they’re very similar films. Both are all-ages friendly noir stories that feature human interacting with strange beings that are outside the norm, and both function as pretty perfect gateway drugs to the world of noir. One of the reasons that I love Who Framed Roger Rabbit so much was that it introduced the aesthetics of noir to me, and eventually got me interested in the genre. And, I think for a whole new generation of people, this film could potentially serve a similar function. Because, they weirdly don’t pull a lot of punches with this movie. It is a noir mystery about a guy looking for the people who killed his dad, which takes him all around the city from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and all eventually gets revealed to be some horrible rich person’s scheme. That’s pretty much a perfect noir framework. And, add in the fact that director Rob Letterman insisted the film be shot on actual film just goes to show you that they intended this film to be something special. The movie looks and feels like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of a kind of storytelling that just doesn’t get enough attention anymore, and which really seems to be a perfect entry point for new fans of the genre. It maybe didn’t work perfectly for me, but I really hope that while I was introduced to the world of noir by a bunch of cartoon rabbits, kids today will be introduced by a bunch of cartoon mice with lightning powers.
Pokemon Detective Pikachu was written by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, and Derek Connolly, directed by Rob Letterman, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk