Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy

Director: Rob Letterman

Writers: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly


Detective Pikachu is a weird idea even for Pokémon, and we’re talking about a franchise whose whole concept is about prepubescent children travelling around the world and pitting their captive, magical pets against each other in combat. We’re talking about a franchise that has designed creatures resembling a walking three-headed palm tree, a humanoid mime-clown-dummy hybrid, and an obese drag queen wearing blackface. We’re talking about a franchise that infamously had an episode of its animated series banned overseas because it featured an underage girl getting ogled at in a beauty contest and an effeminate man sporting fake breasts and a bikini. If ever there was a franchise for which you can always count on the unexpected, this is it. And yet I still could not have predicted that their first ever venture into the realm of live-action cinema would have included a hard-boiled Pikachu with the voice of Deadpool wearing a deerstalker hat and solving crimes. What’s even stranger is how surprisingly ordinary that story ended up being. It’s like when Andy Kaufman took the stage to perform a comedy bit, only to nonchalantly eat a bowl of ice cream; you’re caught so off guard by the lack of payoff that you wind up laughing at the non-jokiness of it all. This movie embodies a similar oxymoron whereby it’s too strange to be ordinary and yet too ordinary to be strange.

The movie is set in Ryme City, a truly breathtaking metropolis that dazzles the eyes with how fully realised and brimming with life it is. With its shadowy, rain-soaked, film-noir ambience and its neon-lit, futuristic aesthetics, Ryme City looks like it could inhabit the same universe as Blade Runner were it not for the peculiar and wonderful creatures that inhabit it. In a world where Pokémon are typically treated as prize fighters and held in confined spaces except when called upon to do battle for human amusement, the celebrated inventor Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) founded this city as a utopia where humankind and Pokémon could live side by side in harmony. It is a place where Pokémon are free to roam around of their own accord, perform jobs and community services (we see, for example, a Machamp directing traffic) and are essential to the community’s way of life. As is often the case in these kinds of stories, the city also has a hidden underbelly where the seedier members of society gather to partake in such illicit activities as illegal Pokémon battles. The obvious comparison here is Who Framed Roger Rabbit which similarly paired human beings with childish cartoon characters in a detective story with comedic overtones. While Ryme City is further removed from our own world than the L.A. of the Robert Zemeckis film, the level on which the movie’s vision of its fantastical utopia is so total and absolute that even those who are total strangers to the world of Pokémon will be drawn in.

Or they might were their introduction to the city not seen through the eyes of such a bland protagonist. Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a young accountant who gave up on all dreams of being a Pokémon trainer as a kid when his mother died. Despite his friends’ attempts to draw him out of his reclusive lifestyle by seeking out a new Pokémon companion, Tim favours a lifestyle as mundane and nondescript as his personality. His life is shaken up however by a phone call from Ryme City telling him that his estranged father, a detective, was killed in the line of duty along with his Pokémon partner, a Pikachu. Tim comes to the city to put his father’s affairs into order only to find in his apartment the Pikachu, alive and speaking in a voice that only Tim can understand. Pikachu, the adorable mouse-like thunder child with a penchant for coffee and snarky one-liners, explains that he and Tim’s father were investigating an unknown, gaseous substance that infects Pokémon with a rabid state of enragement and that they were closing in on the truth when the car crash that took the detective’s life occurred. From here the movie turns into a buddy-cop comedy as the unlikely duo set out to learn the secret that got Tim’s father killed.

While Smith does what he can to endear the audience to this blank slate of a character and gets in a few amusing looks of befuddlement and frustration as he’s dragged all around the city from one crazy encounter to the next, the real star of the show is his electrifying co-star. Offering a PG, family friendly spin on his Deadpool persona, Reynolds steals scene after scene as the cute, fast-talking, caffeine-addicted Pokémon. The visual effects employed in bringing the lovable critter to life are stunning, favouring a photo-realistic look without sacrificing his cartoon expressiveness and agility. The film is so good at having Pikachu move around the space of a given scene and interact with the environment in ways that Roger Rabbit could only have dreamed of that the illusion never breaks even for a second. The CGI animating him is so richly textured that even when his fur gets wet, dirty or charred, it still looks physical and authentic. The animation on the Pokémon throughout, of which there are dozens, is just as spectacular with some personal highlights being Lickitung living up to its name, an interrogation scene where the duo tries to get Mr. Mime to talk, and Psyduck’s explosive headache. The movie is at its best when focusing on the Pokémon at its disposal, especially Pikachu, and thankfully that’s most the time.

The story itself is pretty thin, especially when compared to Roger Rabbit which did such a great job of tying its mystery plot with some rather pointed satire and social commentary on demographics in Los Angeles and show business. Here the puzzle Tim and Pikachu must unfolds in a pretty predictable fashion and at the very end it doesn’t have all that much to say about anything save the usual themes of family and companionship that you’ll see in most children’s films. Even then the way it tries to tie it all together to Tim’s tragic backstory, particularly the fractured relationship with his father, never really lands the way that it should and it feels like the whole idea needed just a few more revisions at the screenplay stage. There is however some Enid Blyton Famous Five charm to the mystery insofar as it serves as an excuse to place the young characters into all of these scrapes that they only narrowly escape. Adding to that effect is the inclusion of Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a rather underwritten character who would have amounted to little more than a token love interest were it not for Newton’s spirited performance, embodying her as a cross between Nancy Drew and a 1930s Hollywood newspaper movie heroine. I was especially a fan of her spotlight reveal, which felt like a vintage film noir flourish.

A weak plot and an uninteresting hero are significant problems for a film to have, which is why Detective Pikachu will never be an all-time classic, but they aren’t fatal when there is so much wonder and splendour to enjoy in the magnificent designs and enchanting creatures that make up this world. There are moments, few and far between but still, where the movie almost feels like it could’ve been a Ghibli production, where it attains a state of visceral wonderment that almost transcends such feeble things as plot. Perhaps the problem comes from taking a Japanese property, a profoundly weird one at that, and trying to conform it to Western storytelling conventions. Perhaps a version of Detective Pikachu that leant more on the wild fantasy-adventure and eye-popping unearthly spectacle of its video game/anime origins would have given us the movie that a smarter plot and a more interesting lead never could. But that’s a guessing game. For what it is, this is a pretty fun movie boasting an outstanding visual oeuvre (as realised by Letterman and cinematographer John Mathieson) that feels so refreshingly unlike anything else being made in Hollywood today. While it isn’t exactly the best like no one ever was, it is a thoroughly enjoyable watch and I’d like to see a lot more of where it came from.

★★★★

Advertisements

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Isabella Sermon, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum

Director: J.A. Bayona

Writers: Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow


I think what surprised me the most about this film was how much the trailers gave away and yet how little they prepared me. After watching the adverts I was able to predict beat for beat how the events were going to unfold and who was going to end up where doing what right up to the third act, but even now I am still astonished by how fundamentally ridiculous and derivative it all was. After the first Jurassic World, which I enjoyed and felt brought something new to the franchise while still remaining true to the original’s spirit but still fell short of the standard, I wasn’t expecting anything amazing. Even then, I still cannot wrap my head around what I saw. Fallen Kingdom is somehow both unremarkable for how dull and banal most of its story and action is and also mindboggling for the utter lunacy behind some of the choices that were made. This is an Attack of the Clones level of ineptitude I’m talking about here where it doesn’t seem possible for a movie to be this insanely stupid and still be so lacklustre.

Picking up after the events of Jurassic World that led to the closure of the park, the lives of the dinosaurs are now threatened by the impending eruption of a formerly inactive volcano on the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), now running an organisation lobbying for the protection of the dinosaurs, is about to lose hope when she is approached by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the prim, proper, and seemingly earnest businessman who always appears in these kinds of movies. He runs the organisation responsible for resurrecting the dinosaurs, owned by Dr. Hammond’s former partner Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) and they are putting together a rescue operation. They need Claire’s help to track the dinosaurs and bring them back safely, especially Blue, the intelligent and last living velociraptor. In an eye-rolling twist, Claire realises that the only person in the world who can rein Blue in is the last person in the world she wants to see, her ex-boyfriend and Blue’s former trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt). Owen has no interest in joining their operation but, after speaking to Claire and realising that there’s no movie if he sits it out, he agrees.

Things are a-go and Claire assembles her team, which as well as Owen includes Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), an IT technician who screams whenever anything moves, makes a sound, or exists, and Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda), a dino vet who has never actually treated nor even seen a dinosaur in the flesh. They tag along with a mercenary troop led by the gung-ho Ken Wheatley (Ted Levine) and head for the island on the day that the volcano is scheduled to erupt. Here they must contend with rampant dinosaurs, scorching lava, and double-crossing mercenaries serving some ulterior motive. After nearly drowning in a pod, shot in a single take from within the spherical trap as it gradually fills up with water (the best action scene in the film), Owen, Claire, and the comic reliefs realise that they’ve been had and must stow away on the departing cargo ship to escape. One tedious, drawn-out scene later, they reach their destination and there learn the insidious reason why these dinosaurs were saved from their doom.

The remainder of the movie takes place in a Gothic mansion like something out of an Edgar Allen Poe novel with thunder and lightning all through the night and secrets around every corner (which might have been fine if I weren’t there to watch a dinosaur movie) and what we get is this tiresome and underwhelming game of cat and mouse (or, rather, dinosaur and human). As Claire and Owen work to liberate the captive creatures they cross paths with a seedy, villainous character played by Toby Jones (because they’re always played by Toby Jones), Lockwood’s young granddaughter Maisie (Isabella Sermon), the obligatory kid who gets herself into all kinds of trouble but never comes to any harm, and another generically evil, blandly-designed, genetically-engineered dinosaur. It really bothers me how both Jurassic World movies have featured lab-designed dinosaurs as their big bads but have neglected to push the boundaries of what’s really possible, opting instead to make both of them barely distinguishable variations of raptors and T-Rexes. If you’re going to invent your own dinosaur, then get creative! Give them triceratops horns or a stegosaurus spike tail or pterodactyl wings or laser eyes or something! Anything!

Anyway, that’s the least of this movie’s problems. After the conclusion to Jurassic World with the escape of the dinosaurs and the collapse of the park provided the set-up to many interesting possible directions, Fallen Kingdom takes so many steps backwards it winds up retreading the territory they’ve already explored in the other films. The very idea of a nefarious organisation sending their team of idealistic, naïve characters to an island of dinosaurs to serve some secret scheme is straight out of The Lost World, except this time there’s a volcano. The movie is filled to the brim with scenes and images copied and pasted directly from the previous Jurassic Park films including the kid hiding from the dinosaur in an enclosed space, the predatory dinosaur falling through the glass, and the human villain getting chomped by the T-Rex. I know that there are certain things that we except to see in a Jurassic Park film the way we do with Star Wars and the Marvel movies, but there has to be some variation and progression. By revisiting the same plot in the same way and following the same beats, all this movie is demonstrating is that the characters in this universe are incapable of learning from their own mistakes. Fallen Kingdom even rips off its direct predecessor by splitting up Owen and Claire just so we can watch them argue about everything all over again before inevitably getting back together.

There is only one thing I really admire about this film and that is its willingness to confront the moral argument at the heart of the Jurassic Park films. What I love about the original 1993 film is how well it captured the sense of miraculous wonder that came with seeing living, breathing dinosaurs for the first time, allowing you to care for the creatures while still fearing them for all the chaos and destruction they could cause. The film acknowledges how dangerous it is for science to try and tamper with nature and the subsequent films have done nothing but confirm and reinforce the idea that bringing these dinosaurs back to life was a mistake. Time after time after time human attempts to control and interfere with them have failed as the beasts have consistently proven that they cannot be contained and that there is no place for them in a world where they are no longer the dominating species. Thus, faced with the prospect of a second extinction of the dinosaurs, Fallen Kingdom debates the question over whether they should be allowed to live or die. But then it bungles that debate in the most inept, outrageous way imaginable.

Before the plot gets started we sit in on a hearing held by Congress on whether they should act to save the dinosaurs or not. In this scene Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) is invited to testify and he argues in favour of extinction. He reasons that the dinosaurs had their time on Earth a long, long time ago and that bringing them back to life was a mistake that has blown up in humanity’s face more than once. This imminent volcanic eruption is an act of God and it strikes Dr. Malcolm as nature’s way of correcting itself. Therefore let nature take its course. Let the dinosaurs die. In a movie that’s supposed to have me root for Claire and Owen’s team and their goal to save the dinosaurs, it doesn’t speak well that in less than five minutes of screen-time Dr. Malcolm won the moral debate hands down. Not a single thing that happens in this movie convinces me that these creatures deserve their chance at life, especially not after Fallen Kingdom makes its case with a plot twist and a resolution that defies any sense of logic, reason or sanity. Never before have I been so horrified by the catastrophic implications of what is supposed to be an uplifting, optimistic ending.

Fallen Kingdom is a formulaic, characterless Hollywood sequel that stomps along with the same sense of purpose as a soulless, genetically-engineered dinosaur. There is nothing at all to emotionally invest the viewer in the events of this film. There is no sensation of majesty or wonder about the dinosaurs because the movie never makes any time for it. There is no suspense in any of the action or story because the movie advertises everything it’s about to do and then explains it all after the fact anyway. It’s not even as good as The Lost World (which is already a low bar to set) because Bayona’s direction, while competent, isn’t a match for 1990’s Steven Spielberg. There is also no affection, humour or wisdom in any of these characters because there is no feeling in anything that they do. The one and only character who exhibits any shred of humanity in this film is the one who has just had enough of it all, the one who feels that everything has run its course and that there’s nothing more to say or do. I don’t want to walk away from a Jurassic Park movie agreeing with the guy who thinks that the dinosaurs should be left to die so that the rest of us can move on with our lives but here we are. That is how badly this movie dropped the ball.