The Popular Game’s Major Live Action Debut is a Blah Devolution.
A few years ago, Pokémon ate the summer. The small colorful cartoony creatures were literally everywhere for the taking; all you needed was the app to see them, and the drive to catch ‘em all. Everywhere you looked, distracted teens and grown-ass adults were publicly charging at the air while glued to their phones- the only way to play the game. Though the VR sensation Pokémon Go eventually came and went, one suspects that it’s wild, all-ages obsessive success clued American movie studios that this phenomenon isn’t just kids stuff. Warner Brothers won the corporate duel for the rights, and several years later, Detective Pikachu is on the case on the big screen.
Though the initial trailer for this big-budget summer tentpole proved appealing to even a complete non-Poké-fan such as myself, the film itself demonstrates that when it comes to managing beloved franchises, WB’s folly with their own DC Universe brand has taught the studio nothing. Despite the wildly colorful nature of Pokémon (both the cartoon and the monsters themselves), this film, as directed by Rob Letterman (Goosebumps, Shark Tale) is a perpetually grey and murky affair. In fact, most every creative aspect of this film has been swiped from numerous other obvious sources (The neon dark city? Blade Runner. The earth-folding quake that happens? Inception. Justice Smith’s central search for father plot? Roughly half of all movies, ever) except for Pokémon itself.
It’s no secret that Pokémon has always truly been about one thing: collecting Pokémon. Despite the occasional call-out that this key point of amateur safari and subsequent dueling looks a lot like animal-napping and cockfighting or dog fighting, the theme (however tweaked as to become more palatable: “The Pokémon also must choose you!”) has persisted throughout decades of popular card games, video games, smartphone games, animated TV shows, comics, toys, and more. For whatever reason, that particular manga-buck stops here, at the global summer box office.
Gone is the “gotta catch ‘em all” mentality, likely chucked over the franchise’s longtime uncomfortably close allusions to organized animal fighting. Though the franchise itself has sidestepped any potential public relations blow-ups over this, Warner Brothers obviously didn’t have the Poké-balls to follow the very established form. Consequently, the traditional surface structures, basis, and even characters are thrown out (no Ash, no Team Rocket, no training of Pokémon), leaving only the iconography. Meaning, the Pokémon themselves. Is the chance to see the critters in live-action, sans most every other recognizable aspect of Pokémon, enough for the property’s many, many, many diehard fans? That’s the bottom-line box office question.
Replacing everything else is a sterling zootopia where humans and Pokémon are intrinsically paired and living in perfect harmony. The entire megalopolis has been engineered and built by a famous self-proclaimed visionary genius played by beloved British actor Bill Nighy. Life is the same as it would be any big city, except that every human has their own weird, whacked-out kind of spirit animal that goes everywhere with them. And these are no ordinary pocket monsters, mind you- the Pokémon of this film are as big as an oversized stuffed animal. Think, the largest of theme park prizes; the kind that requires a separate seat for the ride home. This sort of scale is far more palatable in anime, wherein all other aspects of reality are stylistically fudged. But in Detective Pikachu, we’re asked to accept a world in which a somber Ken Watanabe sits at his desk alongside of a surly, snorting pink plushie with horns. There there, pink plushie… Or, the film’s young female lead (Kathryn Newton), an intrepid and driven cub reporter of the Lois Lane mold who makes a habit of sneaking in and out of restricted areas and delicate situations… with an oversized glossy yellow duck creature on her back. And we’re told that the duck’s head might explode at any time. Just… why??
There are actually three major production companies behind Pokémon Detective Pikachu, not counting The Pokémon Company (whose logo at the beginning of the film garnered a smattering of applause at our screening, ala an anemic Marvel Studios). These studios are Legendary Pictures, Toho Studios, and Warner Brothers. Which then begs the question… With the considerable combined might of that triumvirate, plus the very company that’s namesake is the title creatures, why, oh why does every Pokémon except Pikachu look off? Granted, there are an awful lot of different creatures occupying the frame throughout, and they all must ring true to their established look (see the recent Sonic the Hedgehog fan outrage for what happens when a video game character doesn’t). Indeed, it’s a big ask in terms of computer generated imaging, but it’s also a very big movie for the brand’s legion of young and old fans. Star Pikachu, with his highly detailed fuzzy yellow fur and very game voice of Ryan Reynolds, obviously got the lion’s share of the budget and attention. All the other Pokémon look like half finished visual effects.
Take the way that the Muppets 2011 reboot over-focused on humans and muppets living together, and fuse it with the way 1978’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band forced The Beatles’ music into an awkward narrative, and you begin to see how the much-anticipated (by fans, anyhow) first major live-action Pokémon film goes about its business. It’s an annoyingly lazy and half-baked affair that forsakes a change to be a perfectly reasonable major adaptation of what has been proven to work on Pokémon’s own narrative terms in favor of something very dull, trite, and familiar. And even for those who haven’t seen the many other films that this one is patchwork from, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is still a trying experience; often annoying and visually ugly. There is literally nothing to impress the non-fan.
Although legions of kids are today’s hyper-devoted fans, Pokémon is no newfangled phenomenon. Millions of young people over the years have become completely impractical amateur zoologists, memorizing the hundreds of creatures, their evolutionary phases, statistics, and special abilities at ever phase of the game. They are the ones who will quickly determine whether or not this film is the birth of a new phase of their favorite gaming franchise.
But as far as this critic is concerned, Pokémon Detective Pikachu can Pokémon Go straight into the pokéy.