It was a moment I’d personally awaited for a long time. Much like other fans across the world, we not only wanted a great Pokémon movie but just a great videogame movie in general. Signs were good on the run-up to the release of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – the CGI was intelligent, nodding to the idea that these pocket monsters would feature a form of realism. The casting was great and while many thought that Ryan Reynolds might bring a little too much ‘Ryan Reynolds’ to the role, his quips in the trailer made sense. Yet, I still sat in the cinema with a weight of trepidation considering the preceding years.
What follows a dramatic opening scene of Mewtwo escaping from a lab is a delightfully funny and silly film that revels in the source material. Justice Smith initially appears on-screen as a reluctant Pokémon fan, perfectly encapsulating a portion of the film’s eventual audience. There will likely be many adults who take their kids to see the film with little interest in the franchise beyond the yellow protagonist. They may not know Cubone, Ditto or Pidgey, but they don’t need to. Where the film doesn’t flesh out what these creatures are, imagination does the rest. And it’s all daftly believable.
For those who do know the franchise well, we’ve spent years watching as humans live alongside Pokémon. It may be Ash, Brock, and Misty in the cartoon series or as nameless avatars in one of the many games – humans and Pokémon exist together, so it never feels silly to see Machamp guiding traffic around a lazy Snorlax sitting in the middle of the road, as much as it feels natural that an Eevee will curl up on your desk while you work. It’s all rather cute to see how Pokemon fit into this world of Rime City – Charmanders stoking fires for street food, Loudred used as speaker systems in clubs, or Ludicolo serving drinks in the dingy Hi-Hat Cafe.
Of course, we’re also used to these Pokémon not being able to converse, which is reiterated by Smith’s character ‘Tim’ when he first hears Pikachu talk. Ryan Reynolds does a great job of balancing his cheeky retorts with genuinely heartfelt moments. As much as the Hollywood star enjoys some tongue in cheek humour or over the top comedy, he has a soft spot which matches Pikachu somewhat brilliantly. The dialogue takes turns in being silly, a little rude and sentimental, taking the audience through a vast landscape of emotions. This reflects Tim wonderfully who spends much of the movie in that reluctant bubble.
Yet Smith performs brilliantly opposite his CGI counterpart. With equal comedic timing to Reynolds, he keeps the film flowing, while taking breaks from its sometimes-frenetic pace to slow down and breathe with the audience. His emotional stop-gaps carry weight and his acting is subtle, perfectly contrasting the wild world around him. In fact, the majority of the cast does a great job given that many of them were acting with green screen and a script bursting with words and terms that feel a little silly in the mouth. Though Bill Nighy feels awkwardly two-dimensional in his role of a billionaire plot point.
While the movie moves at quite a pace, easing in and out of huge cinematic moments, the final third flags a little under a quite predictable sequence of writing. However, we must remember that this film is made for kids, who will surely just want to see their favourite Pokémon brought to life. The sheer spectacle of them is wonderfully sweet, even when they’re made to look a little grotesque. Whether it’s a Charizard inferno or a flock of Bulbasaur, the movie straddles a line of cute and realistic (as much as it can be) with deft skill. It would be easy for the stars of the film to look awkward alongside live actors, but the design team has managed to capture an older age of cinema through modern techniques.
The Pokémon have weight, personality and the look of old school Henson puppetry, delivered using state-of-the-art CGI. Pikachu looks cuddly and soft, Lickitung is a bit rubbery and gross, Snubbull moves and emotes as if there’s a team of puppeteers behind him. It’s rare that the CGI sticks out and I often felt myself forgetting that there was an army of programmers behind the scenes.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu isn’t just a good Pokémon experience, it’s a great film. It’s reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons and cereal. It reminds us of why we love the franchise and the opening scene with Tim approaching a Cubone with a Poké Ball in hand is memorable for the moments it recreates where we first loaded up Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue or Pokémon X and Pokémon Y.
As I sat in a moderately filled cinema I glanced around and watched as adults and kids all laughed when Reynold’s responds with a shrewd line; they held their breath as Pikachu stepped into a battle with Charizard; paused for a heart-to-heart or just sat in awe of the creatures we love bursting across skylines and cityscapes. I’ve been a fan of Pokémon since the original games came out – I’ve played every game, have tattoos devoted to the franchise, I’ve introduced my kids to the cartoons and it has become an important part of their lives too. I wasn’t expecting the movie to encapsulate all of that as well as it did and I wasn’t expecting my breath to catch as a whole audience smiled when a flock of Pidgey flew across the screen and a child called out “look mum, look at Pidgey!”.