Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu
My first encounter with Pokémon was when I borrowed a friend's copy of Pokémon Red for the Gameboy. I chose squirtle as my starter pokémon and I remember lying awake, wanting my own copy of the game so badly that I could feel it. Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back hadn't been released yet, so this was in 1999 at the latest. For at least twenty years since then, Pokémon has been a part of my life.
Although I never did get a copy of the first Pokémon game, I did get Pokémon Silver, collected the trading cards, watched the anime, memorised the pokérap, saw the films and played many of the spin-off games. But Pokémon's influence was far broader than all that; it gave me a world of creatures and possibilities to imagine. I took to writing Pokémon fanfiction which, in turn, led me to the furry fandom. Pokémon has literally helped create the person I am today, so it was disappointing when I felt myself drifting away from it.
As I grew and changed, Pokémon did not. The anime, over 1000 episodes of it, focussed on the same main characters but with little character development, and almost all episodes followed two or three stock plot lines. The main games, which marked new generations, all played essentially the same as the first. It seemed strange to let the main drawcards stagnate, while creating an unnecessary number of pokémon (currently over 800).
There's plenty of Pokémon fan content to enjoy, but as the first batch of fans matured over the last 20 years, it would've been great to see the franchise maturing as well. When the trailer for Detective Pikachu was released, that hope came back to life. Ash was gone, the anime style was gone, and the cheesy plots seemed to be gone too. We saw CGI pokémon in a darker, grittier world, with a more mature story involving conspiracies and mysteries. Would this give me what I'd been longing for?
The film starts with our main character, Tim Goodman, attempting to catch a pokémon at the behest of his friend. This doesn't quite go according to plan, but is soon overshadowed by a call from the Ryme City police department informing him that his father was in an accident, and has been declared dead. Tim travels to Ryme City, a place where humans and pokémon live as equals, and where pokémon battles are illegal, to sort through his father's belongings. In doing so, he uncovers a vial of strange gas which causes a troop of nearby aipom to go savage, and meets a talking pikachu who has no memory of who he is, trying to find out what happened on the night of the accident. From then on, Tim finds himself pulled into the mystery of what happened to his father. While I won't go further into the details of the plot, I will say that, although it wasn't done ethically, it's very difficult not to want the villain to succeed.
Now having watched it, I can say that yes, it is exactly what was needed to rekindle my interest in Pokémon. Based on the Nintendo 3DS game of the same name, Detective Pikachu is completely different from the previous films, the anime, and - with the obvious exception - the games. The old characters are gone, pokémon battles are gone, and it has a completely new aesthetic.
At the same time, it maintains enough familiarity to keep the original fans happy. Although its featured pokémon come from many generations, there's a strong bias towards the first generation, and the film contains many references to earlier products to elicit nostalgia. The events of Mewtwo Strikes Back are referenced, appropriately, as having happened around 20 years earlier. The credits show the anime style, and in perhaps the best callback, we see Ryan Reynolds (as Pikachu) singing the original, iconic theme song from the anime. I was also delighted to see that growlithe features heavily in the backgrounds, although I do wish we'd gotten a good close-up view.
I thought the film was excellent, and struck a great balance between what it changed and what it kept the same. Perhaps it wasn't perfect, and maybe on subsequent viewings I'll have more critical comments, but it feels like a film that can stand on its own merit. Actors Justice Smith (as Tim Goodman) and Ryan Reynolds (as Pikachu) both did an exemplary job. I would love to see more Pokémon products building off this film. That seems quite likely as a sequel has already been confirmed.