[Film Column] – Hot On The Trail Of Detective Pikachu

With Cameron Williams

In the world of Detective Pikachu, humans and Pokémon co-exist, often in co-dependent relationships, but Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) goes it alone.

Tim hasn’t been looking for Pokémon in all the wrong places. Instead, he’s been avoiding them just like his … emotions.

Yes, even in a Pokémon world, men struggle to talk about their feelings. But you can’t just capture any Pokémon against their will; don’t be a savage. The elemental creatures must accept your offer of companionship. Pokémon are like star signs; they’re cute manifestations of the personality traits of their human buddies.

Detective Pikachu, based on the game of the same name and juggernaut franchise of collectables, manages to ground itself in a world of cute totem creatures with its buddy cop premise. But the sins of video game films lurk.

Goodman visits a Pokémon/human metropolis, Ryme City, when he learns his estranged father Harry Goodman is missing. When Goodman visits his father’s apartment, there’s a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds and Ikue Ōtani) with amnesia who’s trying to piece together the mystery of Harry’s disappearance. The pair team up and are joined by a reporter Lucy Stephens (Kathryn Newton), who has a theory that there’s a greater conspiracy at play.

There’s a shot where Goodman is framed from behind, walking down a neon-lit alleyway with Pikachu on his shoulder. The silhouette of the pair emphasises the film’s pop art blend of detective noir and pixels. The name of the nightclub from Terminator flashes to mind: Tech noir.

Detective Pikachu excels when it’s in the dark, both physically and in plot. The blend of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Blade Runner are evocative thanks to cinematographer John Mathieson, who manages to make the Poké-world feel alive; a hard task when digital creations are popping up in every corner, threatening to throw the film off balance.

The creation of Pikachu using digital and practical effects, enlivened by Reynolds and Ōtani’s vocal work, makes him one of the most engaging computer-generated characters in a decade of films saturated with PC-powered critters. None of it would work as well without Smith, who sells the existence of Pikachu with genuine reactions, comedic timing, and anxious energy; check him out in the under-loved Netflix series The Get Down.

Following the trail of Goodman and Pikachu, as they learn to trust each, has far greater implications as far as the film’s themes of emotional talismans and fathers and sons is concerned, but as the secrets of Detective Pikachu come to light, a video game film blowout begins.

The shadowy setting of the first half and the small stakes of the plot become a monstrosity in the back half. It indulges the worst impulses of modern blockbusters in its closing moments; explosive and world ending, including a villain who achieves their goal and could happily retire but decides to stick around for the sake giving our heroes someone to defeat.

Pokémon lore eventually outgrows the low-key approach of Detective Pikachu as it forgets the excitement of exploring the alleys, bars, markets and the underground of Ryme City.

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