Detective PikachuReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/10/19 06:18:34
In one of the many hilarious bits in the 1933 Marx Brothers classic “Duck Soup,” wacky dictator Rufus T. Firefly is handed a Treasury report and announces “Clear Why a four-year-old child could understand this report” before turning to his aide and remarking “Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail out of it.” I found myself thinking about that line a lot while watching “Pokemon: Detective Pikachu” for a couple of reasons. For one thing, as someone whose exposure to the entire Pokemon phenomenon over the years has been limited at best (someone tried to explain it to me once and got grumpy when I mentioned that it sounded a little too close to slavery for its own good), i concede that there are no doubt numerous aspects to the proceedings that would be best appreciated or at least understood by those with a greater working knowledge of the subject at hand. For another, since the film at hand was doing absolutely nothing to entertain or amuse me with its slapdash antics, why not let the mind drift to an authentically entertaining film in the way that a drowning man might yearn for a life vest? Alas, even that was not enough to help pass the time with this strenuously annoying film, a hard-sell spectacle that clearly yearns to be the next “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” but only winds up being the next “Space Jam” and just so that there is no confusion in the matter, that is most decidedly NOT a compliment.Pokemon, as you may or may not recall, are cuddly creatures (even the meaner ones tend to have a cutesiness to them) that exist in this world to be captured by humans and trained to battle each other in contests that are like the gladiatorial battles of old, only totally adorbs and stuff. Well, that is how things used to be but as “Detective Pikachu” opens, we learn that times have changed somewhat and that there is now an entire vast metropolis known as Ryme City—think a offhand hybrid of London, Tokyo (albeit one with surprisingly few Asians on display) and pretty much every other movie city where humans and fantastical creatures coexist in some degree of harmony—in which humans and Pokemon live and work together in harmony and where Pokemon battles are illegal. As the story opens, young Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who once dreamed of being a Pokemon trainer as a lad but who now works as an insurance adjuster in the same small town where he grew up with the grandmother who raised him, arrives in Ryme City to close out the affairs of his estranged father, a cop who was apparently killed in a strange car crash. Although Tim just wants to do his business and go home, he can’t help but notice a few odd things. His father’s former superior (Ken Watanabe, a long way from “The Last Samurai”) tries to make it seem as if everything is okay but he acts kind of strange when the two meet. When he gets to his dad’s apartment, he is accosted by Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) , an ambitious intern at the local media conglomerate who suspects that his dad was on to something big and wants the scoop.
The biggest surprise comes when he gets inside the apartment and discovers the old man’s Pokemon partner, Detective Pikachu, looking around for clues. What makes this especially astonishing is that, unlike every other human, for whom Pokemon speech is little more than a series of grunts, coos and mentions of their name, Tim can actually understand every word that Pikachu says (in the voice of Ryan Reynolds) and vice versa. It turns out that Pikachu was there for the car crash and though currently suffering from amnesia, he is not only convinced as well that Tim’s dad was on to something big but is somehow still alive. The two, along with Lucy and her Pokemon, Psyduck, begin to investigate for themselves in a pursuit that leads them on the trail of a mysterious scientific discovery with grave consequences for humans and Pokemon alike. Somehow connected to all of this is Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), the benevolent zillionaire behind Ryme City, and his son (Chris Geere), who has become a powerful force in the family business and who is not so fond of Pokemon. It all builds to the requisite over-the-top finale in which millions of dollars of CGI effects are deployed while older members of the audience will no doubt find themselves noting certain similarities between the villain’s ultimate scheme and the strikingly similar plot point from another blockbuster that just happens to be celebrating a key anniversary this very summer.
Unlike the other Pokemon films, which were (at least based on the examples that I have seen) animated films aimed squarely at young and not-especially-discriminating viewers, “Detective Pikachu” has far greater ambitions behind it beyond transforming itself into a live-action/CGI hybrid. Like its most obvious inspiration, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” it is trying to simultaneously appeal to family audiences with its array of cute characters and elaborate special effects and to older viewers through a combination of ironic humor and nostalgia for the pop culture talismans of their own childhoods. This is an extremely tricky move to pull off—one key mistake at any time and you run the risk of making a film that appeals to none of the above—and one of the greatest accomplishments of “Roger Rabbit” was that it not only pulled it off, it did it in such a supremely entertaining and engrossing fashion that it made it look easy. That film worked not just because it managed to bring beloved animated characters into the real world, or at least a simulacrum of such, through any number of groundbreaking technical feats, but because it deployed those accomplishments in the service of a strong and sound narrative (as some have pointed out over the years, the plot involving the supposed machinations behind the real-life demolition of L.A.’s mass transit system could have actually served as the never-made completion of the “Chinatown” trilogy) and fully developed characters that you cared about whether they were flesh-and-blood or ink-and-paint. The film also found the sweet spot between the kind of goofy slapstick humor that would appeal to younger viewers and more sophisticated jokes for older audience members that ranged from goofs on the long tradition of film noir to the occasional bit of sly ribaldry.
Based on the available evidence, the makers of ‘Detective Pikachu” know how to read the “Roger Rabbit” blueprint but clearly had no good idea of how to execute it. From a technical standpoint, it is clear that untold millions have been spent to bring this film to life and while I guess it looks all right on the surface, there is just something that is slightly off throughout. In “Roger Rabbit,” for example, the combining of the human and toon worlds was so convincingly established that when Bob Hoskins interacted with his animated co-stars, it felt as authentic as it did when he was with other human actors. Here, there is plenty of human-CGI interaction but you never get a similar sense of connection between the two—for all the talk of the deep connection between humans and their Pokemon, all you get is the disconnect of actors trying to emote opposite things that aren’t really there. The storyline cooked up by the four credited screenwriters is pretty much a mess throughout that consists of a tired and fairly predictable “mystery” (one that anyone versed in a couple of “Scooby-Doo” episodes should be able to crack without much of a sweat) that the film regularly abandons for dumb jokes, elaborate special effects sequences that expend lots of energy without creating any truly memorable visual moments that one might retain after the end credits roll and bits of fan service that will presumably baffle outsiders to the phenomenon. The characters are also disappointing as well—Pikachu is little more than a delivery system for Reynolds’s usual blend of mild snark, Tim is so haphazardly drawn that the film seems legitimately confused as to whether he is supposed to be a full-fledged grownup (which he technically is) or a teenager and the rest of the characters, human and Pokemon alike, are so thinly conceived that they barely seem to exist.
Where “Detective Pikachu” is at its weakest is in its attempts to broaden its potential appeal to attract older viewers who are either long past their days when Pokemon was a thing for them or who never got into it in the first place. To be fair, I do not claim to be an expert on Pokemon in even the slightest but it has always struck me as something that skews heavily towards younger participants as a rule and any attempt to try to make it into something that adults would go for would seem to have limited returns at best. Nevertheless, the producers, no doubt in search of that all-important four-quadrant hit, desperately try to fit in any number of elements designed to entertain older viewers in the way that “Roger Rabbit” or even the recent “The Lego Movie” did. Some of these efforts, such as the inexplicable casting of pop star Rita Ora in a small role as a scientist who makes a key discovery, are more bewildering than anything else. Others, such as the intensity of some of the action scenes, end up landing the film in a strange grey area that is inevitably too benign for most action junkies while most likely coming across as too intense for younger viewers. The biggest stumbling block comes with the occasional forays into adult-style humor that just feel wrong throughout. Most of this comes from Pikachu itself, whose lines, thanks to the voice casting of Reynolds, makes him sound like a kiddie version of Deadpool, even more so than Reynolds did in the recent “Once Upon a Deadpool” bowdlerization of “Deadpool 2.” Although a couple of these lines do score, most of them wildly miss their marks and some of them, such as one in which Pikachu observes Tim stammering his way through a conversation with Lucy and suggest that the last time that he spoke to a woman was in the birth canal, are so off that they just linger like a bad smell.“Detective Pikachu” is an undeniably strange movie—there are times when its basic existence suggests that cocaine is evidently a thing in Hollywood again—but the trouble with it is that it somehow manages to be weird without ever actually being interesting.Hell, even the legendarily disastrous “Super Mario Brothers” film was so uniquely awful that it managed to hold one’s attention on some basic fundamental level—every time you thought it couldn’t get more deranged, it would bring on Dennis Hopper to scream “Muster the Goombahs!” and cause jaws to drop once again. By comparison, “Detective Pikachu” merely veers between dullness and incoherence in a battle in which there are no winners, especially amongst ticket buyers. Is there a possibility that those with a greater working knowledge of the entire Pokemon universe in all its various permutations might get more out of this movie than I clearly did? It is entirely possible, I suppose. Do I feel as if I am missing something, either personally or professionally, by not having that amount of background material at my disposal? Not in the slightest bit.
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