Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU
Possibly the most outlandish concept in director Rob Letterman’s POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU isn’t that cute, crazy CGI creatures co-mingle with humans in a real-world environment. It’s that the filmmakers dare to give it a heartfelt story about a son working to solve the mystery of his estranged father’s disappearance. And they pull it off with surprising aplomb.
Like staring into a neon-lit vortex of cuteness, the film delivers a blissful sense of spirit with a titular hero who captivates the audience with his charm, outrageous wit, and squishy body. Prior affinity or knowledge of the franchise isn’t exactly a requirement, but for those who have both, the clever nostalgia drops elicit elation. This noir-tinged madcap caper (a tonal cousin of WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?) sustains the energetic pace created by its self-aware humor and engaging tomfoolery throughout the narrative’s mystery.
21-year-old insurance adjuster Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) isn’t looking for a Pokémon to train and befriend. He’s actually bad at capturing one and getting it to consent to training, as per the rules. But boy is he destined to find one. After his mom died years prior, he gave up his childhood dream of becoming a world-champion Pokémon trainer, eschewing such whimsical notions in favor of practicality. Around that time, he and his father, Detective Harry Goodman (a superstar cameo this builds towards), grew apart as his dad put career above family.
However, when word comes from Harry’s superior, Lt. Hide Yoshida (Ken Wantanabe), that Tim’s estranged father has died in an car accident, Tim reluctantly travels to Ryme City to clean out his apartment and put the past to rest. Only Harry’s Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), is hiding out there. He’s come down with a frustrating case of amnesia and a story to tell about the curious circumstances in which Harry disappeared. Also on the trail is amateur reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton). Something strange is afoot, and the fuzzy yellow caffeine addict, dogged junior journalist and reticent worrywart are about to get to the bottom of things.
Screenwriters Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Derek Connolly and Letterman’s knack for immersive world-building augments the narrative, which occasionally suffers from some predictability issues and contrivance, following patterns set by previous superhero films and father-son melodramas. Nevertheless, it’s what they play with in between those familiar hallmarks where their creativity shines through. They envision Ryme City as a BLADE RUNNER-esque metropolis where humans and Pokémon co-exist in harmony, free from the metaphorical shackles of their past societal roles. Tim and Pikachu’s walk through the night market is engaging in design and location. The climactic pursuit during a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day-type parade is colorful and showcases the city’s layout and inhabitants.
The rules of the world are laid out in a digestible manner, and don’t overwhelm the audience whether they’re longtime fans or newbies. Much like the HARRY POTTER series, where wizards have animal guides and spectral protectors, the humans of the Pokémon cinematic world utilize their “pocket monsters” like a familiar or Patronus. Part of the fun for fans is seeing how their favorite characters are properly and cleverly utilized. Whether it be during the underground cage matches that pit Pokemon against each other, or the Torterra action sequence, or the moment where a surprise character is revealed, nostalgia is layered in thoughtfully, and always with character drive at the forefront. The timing on all of these are of crucial importance, which the filmmakers clearly understand as these drops aren’t tossed around willy nilly.
Smith gives a decent performance as a young man rediscovering his youthful vigor through play and imagination. Reynolds’ vocal work is an expected delight, giving an airy quality to the character’s heavy snark. The animators give him sweet body language, expressive eyebrows and soulful eyes that make you root for these two to get answers.
That said, it’s Newton who steals their spotlight, making us wish the narrative revolved around her fearless, tenacious heroine and sidekick. She’s the trifecta of sweet, soft and strong. Her magnetic presence enchants from the moment she makes her entrance down a dimly lit staircase (which blessedly doesn’t suffer from the male gaze). In her capable hands, she single-handedly invigorates the B-story revolving around big business in bed with the news media – a possible scheme involving billionaire businessman Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) and his son/ her boss, Roger (Chris Gere). Yet it’s Lucy’s Pokémon Psyduck, a neurosis-riddled, beady-eyed chubby duck, who’s this film’s breakout star. His nervous temperament and explicit need to find calm in chaos will resonate with adults in the audience and also provide a few pratfalls for the kids. There’s levels to the hilarity of their ODD COUPLE-inspired pairing, as she’s an intrepid reporter always sniffing out dangerous stories and Psyduck is far less courageous.
Though the picture isn’t perfect, it’s a perfectly suitable jump-start to a blended live-action/CGI cinematic universe.
POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU opens on May 10.