Dienstag, 25. Juni 2019

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

Between an unnecessarily convoluted plot lifted more or less directly from Disney's Zootopia (2016) and a Ryan Reynolds lead performance that plays like a PG-spin on his turns as Marvel's Deadpool, Rob Letterman's Pokémon: Detective Pikachu doesn't seem to be making an especially strong case for being named perhaps the best cinematic adaptation of a video game ever made.

Indeed, there is plenty to criticise about the first live-action film to come out of the wildly popular Pokémon franchise, whose collectable fighting creatures that give the property its name have been a staple of pop-culture for more than 20 years – from countless Nintendo-produced video games to trading cards to a long-running anime series. But Letterman and screenwriters Dan Hernandez, Benji Smith, Derek Connolly, and Nicole Perlman do for Pokémon what Travis Knight and Christina Hodson did for the Transformers in Bumblebee (2018): they rise above their specious set-ups and muddled resolutions with infectious sincerity and a keen sense of understanding for the material they have been entrusted with.

Adapted from an offbeat Nintendo 3DS game by the same title, Detective Pikachu is a decidedly weird movie, even by Pokémon standards. While the franchise typically revolves around human protagonists catching the titular critters – whose vocabulary consists at most of the name of their respective species – in so-called Poké Balls, and training them to challenge others in (usually) good-natured fights, this story features few fights, fewer Poké Balls, and stars a wisecracking, deerstalker-wearing, crime-solving, caffeine-addicted Pikachu (voiced and motion-captured by Reynolds) – the one Pokémon even non-fans will recognise.

As it happens, Pikachu was the partner Pokémon of Harry, the estranged father of young Tim (Justice Smith), who has long since sworn off his childhood dream of becoming a trainer. After Harry is killed in an accident involving the synthetic super Pokémon Mewtwo – a nod to 1998's Pokémon: The First Movie – Tim and Pikachu team up to uncover the dark secrets of Ryme City, a seemingly peaceful metropolis that has not only outlawed Poké Balls but any kind of Poké Brawl as well.

Tim (Justice Smith) and Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) are investigating the death of Tim's father.
© 2019 Legendary and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Playing Pokémon not as an obviously child-friendly adventure romp but as a neo-noir urban-fantasy buddy comedy is a move not dissimilar from what Rock Morton and Annabel Jankel attempted in the notoriously maligned Super Mario Bros. (1993). But although that highly creative film is sadly underappreciated, it also isn't particularly good, so it's thrilling to see the promise of its spirit fulfilled in another Nintendo movie.

For all the narrative knots Detective Pikachu ties itself into, its aesthetic and atmosphere are beautifully distinct. Wearing the thought and care that went into its design on its sleeve, Ryme City is a vibrant, neon-drenched locale populated by seamlessly rendered CGI Pokémon from all of the franchise's seven generations and dotted with all sorts of Poké-themed paraphernalia that will certainly reward multiple viewings.

Along the way, Pikachu and Tim enlist the help of the neurotic Pokémon Psyduck.
© 2019 Legendary and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
On top of that, the film is uproariously funny, particularly in its superior first half. Ryan Reynolds' fast-talking – and, frankly, devastatingly cute – Pikachu is the obvious star of the show, dealing both in delightfully absurd and sneakily dark lines of dialogue that nevertheless feel in keeping with series tradition. But Detective Pikachu also features a very game supporting cast of both people – Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe stand out, while Kathryn Stevens, as Tim's inessential love interest, is shortchanged by the script – and Pokémon, of whom the hapless Mr. Mime and the monomially hilarious Psyduck ("Psyduck!") make for some of the movie's very best scenes.

What all of this amounts to may not be a perfect film, but given video game cinema's track record, where halfway passable entries like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) or Resident Evil (2002) routinely make it onto best-of lists and where strained seriousness currently seems to be the default mode (Warcraft, Assassin's Creed), it is indeed refreshing to behold something like Detective Pikachu – a movie that creatively appropriates its parent franchise and provides consistent entertainment by leaning into its own silliness. And perhaps most importantly, it is clear in every frame that it was made by people who love Pokémon.

★★★★

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