It's still difficult for me to wrap my brain around the fact that despite countless video games and other IP adaptations over the years that Pokémon has somehow eluded becoming a big screen, live-action event film until this weekend. I can remember Christmas of '99 and getting a Game Boy Color that had to be shared between myself and my siblings with each of us wanting to play our respective Pokémon games at the same time whether that was the red version I received or the blue version my brother did. This was my first real encounter with the world of Pokémon after which I enjoyed collecting the cards more so than I did necessarily playing the actual game. And then there was of course the animated series which led to a couple of animated feature-length films and some Nintendo 64 games (Pokémon Stadium was legit!), but in retrospect it all felt more like a fad that came and went rather quickly in the scheme of things. After the Pokémon roster started expanding past that original one hundred and fifty characters and through to a few years back when the brand re-claimed its dominance over the market with Pokémon GO-the interactive mobile game that had you feeling like you were actually catching Pokémon in the wild-I'd been more or less out of the loop. Moreover, despite how far-reaching Pokémon continued to be, I simply couldn't muster any interest in the multi-format craze; the individual facets of it seeming as widespread as the next and each with as dedicated a fan base as the next. What was I missing? With this in mind, one can imagine my initial response to the news Warner Bros. was hiring Ryan Reynolds to voice Pikachu in a live-action adaptation of one of the newer video games that dealt with this fan-favorite Poké-creature becoming a detective. In short, it sounded like a really dumb idea that could in no way translate to the big screen in any type of credible manner that might pull in an audience beyond the already initiated and the Deadpool 3 screenwriters. Rather, it felt as if it would probably end up going the route of those Alvin and the Chipmunk or Smurf movies where no one actually cared about them and the only people who saw them were children whose parents needed eighty-eight minutes of repose over the weekend. This was, of course, until the first trailer arrived lending the feature the favor of clearly being a more creative endeavor than those aforementioned cash before quality adaptations. This is to say there was evidence of a certain level of care given in the creation of Pokémon Detective Pikachu as the trailer and subsequent execution of the film illustrates both a style and ambition in developing this world that means to both fulfill the fan base as well as weave this strange attraction from the uninitiated by being just weird enough to be engaging; by being unabashedly unusual, but undeniably interesting.

Tim (Justice Smith) encounters Pikachu (voice of Ryan Reynolds) on his first trip to Rhyme City in some time.
© 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Directed by Rob Letterman (Goosebumps), the filmmaker is largely able to do here much of what he did with that 2015 film having injected that property largely fueled by nostalgia to something more of by caring enough about the fan base to give them not only what they wanted, but what general moviegoers might respect as well. In other words, he cared about R.L. Stine's series and the characters that made it work best and he very much does the same with Detective Pikachu. The screenplay comes from a team including Letterman, Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World, Kong: Skull Island) and the duo of Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (One Day at a Time, Amazon's The Tick) in a script that very clearly went through multiple drafts as the narrative is arguably the weakest aspect of the film in total. This is said not in vitriol against the film as a whole, but more simply an acknowledgement that so much of what Detective Pikachu has to offer is so surprisingly good that it comes as something of a disappointment that the story itself is what tends to deflate as the movie progresses. In the film, Justice Smith (The Get Down, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is the son of a detective who has recently gone missing in the fictional metropolis of Rhyme City. Smith's Tim, then ventures to Rhyme City first in order to simply straighten out the final affairs of his long-distance dad he seemingly had no relationship with and no cares to have any ties to whatsoever, but who begins to become more curious about the fate of his father when he meets a Pikachu that can talk and that he can understand; furthermore, Tim being the only person who can seem to understand the Pikachu. The fervent little Pokemon is anxious to figure out why he all of a sudden has amnesia, how he is connected to Tim's father, as well as why Tim is the only human being who's ever been able to understand him. In light of all of these questions, Pikachu and Tim set out to try and answer some making new friends along the way including an aspiring journalist named Lucy (Kathryn Newton). Lucy knew Tim's dad was onto something big having to deal with Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) and his son, Roger (Chris Geere), the benefactors of Ryme City that created the humanitarian environment where people and Pokémon co-exist. As these things tend to go though, nothing and no one are who they appear to be.

In light of these revelations, it should be no surprise that the story itself is the weakest link in this chain as story has never been the biggest draw of any platform Pokémon has chosen to adapt itself to. Even the animated series which would seemingly serve as the best source of a narrative was more of the same formula repeated episode after episode with different Pokémon thrown in so as to mix things up rather than actually taking the series in any one direction. And while I haven't played or was even aware the Detective Pikachu approach was a game in and of itself beforehand, it is admittedly a logical way to approach this live-action version that will introduce new human characters not formerly known even to the pre-existing fan base. Adapting the world of Pokémon to fit into the mystery/noir genre is a genuinely intriguing approach. Pokémon was always more about the ideas of this world where this bounty of weird creatures existed than it was any kind of themes or character's with arcs or forward momentum. The idea always seemed to be more about the appeal of the creatures and how they could be utilized in a battle situation (AKA how they could sell more toys, cards, games, etc.) whether they be cute yet powerful like the titular Pokémon in this film or if they were more grating than helpful as is the case with Lucy's Psyduck. Beyond this, there wasn't anywhere much further to go or anywhere much deeper to take the characters. It is in adding in these story archetypes that Letterman develops the world of Rhyme City and the multitude of different Pokémon that exist within it, but it is also in doing this that the over-written and ultimately contrived rather than streamlined screenplay doesn't balance the natural integration and development of the fictional characters with that of the human beings they live alongside. The not necessarily complicated, but overly-twisty plot tends to take over the fun the movie is having by simply existing in this make-believe, fantastical space it has created. It's one of those moves movies sometimes make when they can't seem to figure out what their obligatory third act climax is going to be and so they quickly throw in some gibberish about how what you thought was happening all along wasn't really happening and this person is actually the antagonist, so here's what we're going to have to do and who we're going to have to fight in order to reach that conclusion we know we have to reach. It doesn't completely detract from the overall experience as there is this sense of genuine entertainment and fun to be had by more of the film than not, but to say the film feels natural in its progression is being about as real as Reynolds' commitment to giving an authentic performance as Pikachu.

Lucy (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck are investigative reporters on the trail of a conspiracy happening within their city.
© 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All Rights Reserved.
This is a very stripped down, straightforward story that doesn't have much going on outside its main throughline and thus is the reason it doesn't necessarily feel like the story pays itself off in the way it should as it somewhat eats itself from the inside out, but while this highlights the film's major issues there is plenty else to enjoy about the experience of finally seeing life-like Pokémon rendered on the big screen. What is most notable almost immediately is the way in which Letterman in fact integrates and begins to build this reality where it isn't simply birds that fly overhead or fish that swim in bodies of water, but Pokémon of all varieties. There isn't ever an "in your face" moment where Letterman forces the existence of these otherwise unknown creatures down the audience's throat, but rather the director subtly slides them into the roles of their real-life counterparts allowing for the audiences' integration into the world to be as smooth as the Pokémon's themselves. To accompany these sprawling, but unassuming and beautifully captured shots of how a society such as this works composer Henry Jackman has crafted a score that is both a nostalgia-fueled synth machine a la eighties adventure flicks featuring kids who are smarter than every adult in the film while incorporating the sounds of the 16-bit video game consoles that would define video games for an entire generations. The track, "Rhyme City" is a prime example of this technique as not only does it induce a sense of wonder in the form of welcoming us into this world filled with magical realism, but it conditions us to feel as if we (or at least part) of the audience have visited this place at some point in our distant memories. Setting this kind of tone, Letterman allows Jackman's score to play fluidly throughout much of the film naturally spiking in moments where we're meant to feel something real or be intrigued further by this new environment where things can happen we're not entirely aware of. In this way, Letterman balances the anxiety of tense situations with the utilization of the Pokémon and their abilities to a satisfying effect that makes the audience long to discover more of these creatures and explore more of their world. On the flip side, the film certainly could have done with beefing up the human roles as Smith's Tim is more of a drag than anything else-his dour attitude unnecessarily bringing down the mood in the first act before embracing the film's inciting incident whereas Lucy and characters like the Clifford's or Ken Watanabe's Lieutenant Yoshida are simply underwritten. It's easy to appreciate much of what Letterman and his team are doing here in terms of their visual aesthetic, their loyalty to the Pokémon lore, and their world-building techniques, but if these human characters can make natural progressions in the sequel along with a more compelling narrative Pokémon Detective Pikachu won't only be the best and most successful video game franchise to date, but it will also be one of the better, more inventive live-action family franchises to come along in some time.

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