Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, May 31, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Pokemon Detective Pikachu (2019)

Like most ten year old Americans in 1998, I was swept up in “Pokemon” fever. I can distinctly recall racing home from school around three in the afternoon, in hopes of not missing more than a few minutes of the anime, which was airing in syndication at the time. I grabbed up plenty of the toys, especially the pocket-sized figurines of the various monsters. I had a small binder full of the trading cards. I even convinced my dad to buy me a Gameboy Color specifically to play the games. However, my passion for “Pokemon” cooled after a few years. I remember playing “Pokemon Gold” but, even by that point, I was loosing interest. A lot of that interest had transferred over to “Digimon,” easily the superior anime, and then much weirder shit.

But for the rest of the world, Poke-fever never really ended. Over two full decades after the franchise's beginning, Pikachu and his other pocket monster friends – tallying around 811 now – remain beloved pop culture staples. The anime is still running. The games are still event releases that drive conversations all around the internet. There's been at least 21 animated “Pokemon” movies released over the years. Now, the time has come for a live action one. “Pokemon Detective Pikachu” has been similarly enthusiastically received, the trailer being widely accepted as one of the year's best. People were even wondering if the video game movie curse has been broken. Which makes “Detective Pikachu” a fitting choice to close out Video Game Movie Month.

Instead of adapting the mainline “Pokemon” series, the basis for all those anime movies, of Ash or Red trying to catch 'em all and be the very best like no one ever was, “Detective Pikachu” draws from a mystery-solving spin-off. After his dad seemingly dies in a car crash, young insurance salesman Tim Goodman ventures to Ryme City. Instead of being kept in Pokeballs and being forced to fight for human's enjoyment, people and Pokemon peacefully co-exist in the city. That's when Tim discovers a deerstalker cap wearing Pikachu that speaks English, that only he can understand. The Pikachu has some connection to Tim's dad and is certain he's still alive. Unwilling at first, Tim soon teams up with the highly marketable little critter to unravel the mystery.

First and foremost, does “Detective Pikachu” break the video game movie curse? I'll concede that the film is definitely much better than the majority of video game adaptations. As crowd-pleasing spectacle, “Detective Pikachu” definitely works. The movie features its share of impressive action sequence. A fantastically exciting, and mildly surreal, sequence involves characters trying to escape the massively shifting landscape as three giant tortoise Pokemon grow up around them. Action scenes, like Pikachu and Tim escaping a horde of mad monkeys or a fight between a scarred Charizard and the titular detective, are energetically directed. Even in a family flick like this, there's still a finale packed full of urban destruction. It is, admittedly, a pretty good urban destruction filled finale. A series of flaming parade balloons make for an especially memorable set piece.

Perhaps even more importantly, the world of “Detective Pikachu” brilliantly works. No, many of the questions I have about the ramifications of this universe remain unasnwered: Do people eat Pokemon? Where do all these pocket monsters poop? Why are private citizens allowed to cock-fight cute creatures with the equivalent power of WMDs? However, Ryme City is a pretty cool place. The setting has so much character. You see humans and Pokemon interacting in minor ways in the background, every corner of the film full of so much personality. The special effects, the classic Pokemon designs being smoothly transferred into real life, are also extremely good. That helps the audience further buy into this fantastical world on-screen.

For all the qualities of “Detective Pikachu” that work, I never quite connected with the film. Something about the story's emotional core rings hollow. Tim's background is rift with so much tragedy. Even before his dad goes missing, he has a dead mom, a distant relationship with the aforementioned dad, and is a general outcast. The bond he'll form with Pikachu is developed soon enough, his disinterest in Pokemon obviously setting up him falling in love with a pocket monster later. From the moment we meet the talking Pikachu, he's cracking jokes in Ryan Reynolds' voice. That snideness makes it hard to relate too much to the life-changing friendship they are supposedly forming. The scene where Tim is moved to tears by Pikachu being injured feels deeply unearned. We jump right from the “hating each other” part of the buddy cop formula to the “loving each other” part without the necessary middle section where the partners gain a begrudging respect for each other.

Though it's hard to believe, “Detective Pikachu” is still ostensibly a mystery. Sadly, the movie underwhelms in that regard as well. In fact, the script cheats several times before the end. Fully immersive holograms that can perfectly recreate recordings, even apparently angles the camera never caught, is a very contrived plot turn. Similarly unlikely plot devices, like perfect mind control and magical new powers, crop up before the end. The true villain of the story is immediately identifiable the minute he appears on-screen. The exact nature of his master plan is especially baffling, shifting how humans and Pokemon interact in a way I still don't completely understand.

Still, there are plenty of things to enjoy about the film. The cast is likable, for one thing. As Tim, Justice Smith is an entertaining lead. The slightly irritated quality he brings to the lead plays off the crazy world and critters he encounters along the way. Ryan Reynolds still seems like an odd choice to voice the electric rat – should've been Danny DeVito – but he attacks the part with gusto. Kathryn Newton has a decent amount of attitude as Lucy, the hotshot would-be reporter Tim teams up with. I also liked her Psyduck sidekick, always one of my favorite Pokemon. And, since this is a Hollywood movie based on a Japanese property, Ken Watanabe is legally obligated to show up.

“Detective Pikachu” is amusing. It's a big budget family fantasy film that includes shout-outs to both “Aliens” and Michael Haneke, so it's impossible to say I wasn't entertained. Choosing to forego the story fans all expected in favor of something different, right from the get-go, was a smart move. However, “Detective Pikachu” still has the problem of attempting to transfer video game lore and logic into a narrative motion picture. Audiences don't seem to have minded. The film has predictably been a box office success. Legendary Pictures already has more “Pokemon” movies in development. I didn't dislike the film, even if the adorable charms of its fuzzy titular investigator only goes so far. [6/10]

After watching a whole month of video game movies, what have I learned? The Japanese do it better than Americans. A lot of video game movies have a frustrating disregard for what they are adapting. Yet fidelity to the source material doesn't necessitate quality. The pacing needs of a motion picture – rising and falling action – and that of a video game – rising action that constantly moves forward – are totally different. This is the conflict video game adaptations most struggle to overcome. I think future video game movies should pull from games with deep lore and interesting characters, while also realizing there's no need to replicate the exact structure of a game's plot or mechanics. (I also learned that Uwe Boll is a more interesting filmmaker than Paul W.S. Anderson.)

And there will be many more video game movies in the future, especially as gaming continues to grow to dominate the market. Within the coming months, we'll see movies based on “Sonic the Hedgehog – a topic I already have many thoughts on – as well as “Monster Hunter,” “Dynasty Warriors,” and a new “Doom” film. A CGI animated “Mario” feature from Illumination is in the pipleine. So is a new “Mortal Kombat” film. Movies based on “Minecraft,” “Five Night's at Freddy's” “Mega Man,” and “Uncharted”  are just some of the announced projects that sound like they might actually get made. With the recent announcement of Sony creating a new production company specifically to adapt video games into movies, it doesn't look like this cinematic trend will slow down any time soon.

At the beginning of May, I wondered if I would still think a month of video game movies would be a good idea by the end. I can soundly say it was a bad one, as watching so many lousy films in such a short time frame was exhausting. But there are still plenty of game movies and more being made, and I'm an idiot, so there's also a chance I'll do this again. Until that time comes, the arcade is closed.

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