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May 12, 2019

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

by Franz Patrick


Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Let’s get it out of the way: Even those who know nothing about Pokémon may be able to find some entertainment value out of “Detective Pikachu,” a visually impressive fusion of live-action and computer animation—especially considering the fact that each “pocket monster” is so different from one another, even creatures simply waddling about in the background demand attention. But the problem with the work is straight-forward: the mystery is so elementary, so shallow, so painfully generic, one gets the impression eventually that the screenwriters—Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Rob Letterman (who also directed the picture)—were instructed to keep it light and safe. One marvels at the images on screen and it cannot be denied this particular universe is brimming with potential. However, what get is a crippled piece of work—for the sake of being easily digestible.

Seemingly throwaway moments and shots are creative and amusing. Consider the few seconds on a train as Tim (Justice Smith), our protagonist who investigates the apparent death of his father, wakes up next to a Lickitung. It is not enough that it is pink, quite sizable, and plump, or that it has a long tongue. The details of the tongue—its colors, its texture, the moisture exuding from its pores—are so alive that just looking at the Pokémon is funny in and of itself. What it ends up doing is even funnier.

Another example is a scene involving Mr. Mime. In order to get the next clue that may help to solve the central mystery, Tim and Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) are required to play the Pokémon’s game. Yes, Mr. Mime’s look—particularly its numerous brilliant expressions—demands attention. This time, however, the focus is on the Pokémon’s movement—its agility, precision, how it leans its body weight against thin air. For second we forget we are watching computer animation because the movements are so detailed, they come across as life-like. And then there are those in-between shots when various Pokémon crawl on electric posts as night turns to day. The birds freely soaring across the sky. It underlines a lived-in world.

As I observed images like these, I wished the same level of thought and attention were applied to the screenplay. A potent mystery, one that requires logic, risks, and perhaps even a leap of faith, would have turned the work from a marginally entertaining video game movie into a mystery that just so happens to have Pokémon in it. By castrating the work’s central core—the tug-of-war between mystery and detection—it becomes just another project to be forgotten once the credits roll. I enjoyed, however, that the picture offers a finality within the plot it introduces. Doing so opens up more possibilities for the inevitable sequel. I expect a more daring follow-up.

On a lesser note, some of the performances made me cringe at times. The acting is exaggerated when it is unnecessary. It must be very difficult to have to act next to nothing or something that does not emote. So I refrain from blaming the actors—I recognize that sometimes one must feel the need to be larger-than-life while performing in front of a green screen or a green figure. It is the director’s task, then, to be highly particular when it comes to emotions being conveyed on screen. Hyperbolic expressions and voice acting run rampant here—it is highly problematic that at times I felt like I was watching a movie meant for television. It is the director’s responsibility to demand retakes until every element feels exactly right. The leniency softens the work—a great frustration because the universe introduced is clearly high caliber.

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