When Pokemon Detective Pikachu’s first trailer came out, I was at my day job, meaning I had to watch it on the small screen of my cellular telephone. I did so – giddily, and then again and again and again. I stood up, walked over to one of my colleagues who I talk about these sorts of things with and said, “Dude. Pokemon Detective Pikachu. If it is half as good as I want it to be, I’ll see it twice.”
And he said, “Cool.” And then waved me away.
Classic workplace interaction.
But I really meant it. I was so excited by what I had seen in that first trailer that I made sure to never see any subsequent ones and just go into it with expectations unreasonably high. When the initial headlines from folks who saw it early proclaimed it to be a thing of wonder, I. Was. Hype.
So of course I saw it at the first local showing Thursday evening. And then again about 36 hours later.
We established that I went in with high expectations, but what I found so fascinating is that my expectations had very little to do with how I actually felt about the movie. Expectations are “wants,” “would likes,” “nice to haves.” What instead mattered here were my requirements: my “needs” and “must haves.”
So, let me ask you: What do you need from your cinematic nostalgia trip?
I needed joy.
Ha, no, and I knew that this movie was about a kid who had lost his father, so it’s not like I was asking for a 104-minute laugh riot, but I did need this movie based on a series of games about young children being thrown out into the world alone to enslave wild animals and force them to fight for their lives to, like, not go full-on grimdark. Ryme City, as presented in that trailer, looked like it could be pretty dark – the “grim” was slightly up in the air. I mean, Shazam is surely a comedy and ostensibly fun for the whole family… but it also features peoples’ heads being eaten, so.
I liked Shazam, but I needed there to not be any head eating in my animal battle movie, please.
And fortunately, I can report that no heads are eaten. And also that the animal battling is the exception to the rule. Pokemon are much more heavily integrated here: Basically every human has a Pokemon partner. Police officers, journalists, doorpeople. They’re everywhere, just hanging out with their people or even doing their own thing. Ryme City has banned battling entirely and brought Pokemon from the wild into society. Pokemon and humans live and work together in harmony. Which means we get to see a lot of them. A few, like the traffic guard Machamp, have a clear purpose in the world.
Most of them don’t, but they do hit the other thing I needed: that the Pokemon to cute. When protagonist Tim Goodman’s love-interest Lucy comes into the picture, she’s an aspiring journalist furious that she’s being asked to do listicles about the 10 cutest pokemon, a nonsense assignment because They’re All Cute.
And… yeah. For a Pokemon movie to succeed in my eyes, I have to enjoy the act of seeing Pokemon because OH MY GOSH IT’S A SNORLAX / EVEE / BULBASAUR / ETC. BUT IN, LIKE, REAL LIFE KINDA; It was critical to me that each time a new Pokemon came onscreen, I felt something and that that something was “Awwww.”
And it’s largely successful. One thing that I think is key to this is the fact that Pokemon are tiny. You never actually get a sense of this from their more traditionally animated iterations, because everything is unrealistic in proportion. But when they’re transplanted to the quote-unquote “real world,” their size becomes immediately apparent. Pikachu is one-foot-four-inches, and it looks to me like they went with that height. Though this guy is canonically just under twice that, he’s probably two feet tall in the movie and nearly as wide.
And small things are cute. Objectively.
However, there’s another part to this, and that’s whether or not the CGI renditions of beloved characters are “distracting.” It’s a finer line – one that’s a bit more personal, because everyone has a different threshold. I would venture to guess that I’m less forgiving than most, but it’s not like I can’t be fooled by quality work.
Pikachu himself falls into that latter camp. He looks amazing, both from a design perspective and also from a digital integration one. The vast majority of the time, you can forget that he is a bunch of triangles, and the couple of iffy moments don’t spoil the general illusion. I’m sure that as much work went into making sure Pikachu was perfect as most of the other Pokemon combined. He is the most prominent and important of them: he has to work. And he does. I love him.
But then you have, say, Mewtwo, who gets a fair share of screentime as well. And doesn’t look great. First up, he’s not cute. Like, of course he’s not, and it might actually be weirder if he was, but he still doesn’t hit that checkbox, and that makes the bigger problem harder to forgive: he doesn’t look real. At all. There is never a fraction of a second where Mewtwo looks like he is a part of the human world.
Any given shot of him looks like what I would expect from Square Enix in a Final Fantasy: Pokemon movie. Which is to say, good 3D animation, but 3D animation nonetheless. And that goes for a lot of the Pokemon. A few others, almost exclusively furry ones like Psyduck, Snubbull, and Jigglypuff, have moments of reality… but everything with visible skin or scales or what-have-you, are certainly above Nintendo-video-game-fidelity… but you could probably get those Bulbasaur models running around on an Xbox One X.
I know “Ugh, it looks like a video game” has been an offensive statement in CG historically, but video games are looking really gosh darn good nowadays, especially with non-humans… so that’s not the insult it once was. But, when the humans are actually real, it’s a little frustrating that I don’t feel wrong making the comparison. It’s not always an issue, but it is sometimes, and it’s definitely something that stuck out more on my second viewing.
But despite that, Pokemon Detective Pikachu did what I needed it to do. What happened beyond that was going to be gravy. Pretty good gravy.
I think that a lot of the headlines about this have been a bit much, because to be absolutely clear Pokemon Detective Pikachu is not some kind of revelation. It’s not the best video game movie ever (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), nor is it even the best movie based on a video game (Ace Attorney)…
But it makes good on that odd casting choice. I have always been a Ryan Reynolds fan, so I didn’t need to be won over, but I genuinely think that he nails it. Though the marketing gimmicks might have led one to believe that this was Deadpool for children, it’s not. The marketing may be cynical, self-referential, and/or ironic, but the movie is absolutely none of those things. And how could it be? Pokemon isn’t about the loss of innocence and childlike wonder: it’s about keeping those things at all costs.
A Merc with a Mouth but it’s Pikachu would destroy this. Sure, Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu has a mouth. The fundamental joke is how incongruous those quips and the voice they’re delivered with are from the fuzzball they come out. And sometimes those punchlines are clear allusions to the actual real world (most blatantly with a genuinely bizarre reference to climate change that both makes no sense in context and ultimately undermines its own point by the scene’s conclusion. Really not sure what they thought they were accomplishing there).
But even they are technically still in-world. No one is ever turning to the screen to address just how ridiculous things are – with possibly the exception of the brilliant sequence with Mr. Mime, and even that stops being quite so jokey pretty fast. And thank gosh, because serious self-awareness would bring the whole house of cards down.
If you think too hard about the logistics of any Pokemon narrative, you end up with all kinds of “How” questions. In anime and video games, you can more easily brush those off than in a real-world sort of thing where the non-Pokemon protagonist is actually an insurance appraiser.
So… okay: There’s insurance here. Now, let me go down a rabbit hole thinking about the implications of insurance in a world with Pokemon. Except I don’t want to do that. Who do you think I am, Mat Pat?
No, I overthink things, but I don’t want to overthink this thing. And so I actively fought against the thousands of little questions that each new scene inspired – both about the world in general and also about the narrative itself. There is so much here that just doesn’t make sense. And the only way you get through it is to Not Worry About It, because the writers clearly didn’t.
Seeing the film a second time less than 48 hours later made that more difficult, because I could see so clearly where the pieces didn’t quite fit, and the initial wonder of every new moment had faded just a little bit. But I was heartened to know that my enjoyment was not purely fueled by nostalgia. Because even so soon after, when Pokemon Detective Pikachu works, it *really* works.
And when it doesn’t… gosh those Pokemon are cute.
Seven Point Three out of Ten