Adapting books to film is a delicate balancing act that, even when successful, will often yield grumbly clichés from viewers who proclaim that the book was better – all the while ignoring the fact that a 500 page novel is a very different beast to a two hour film.
Imagine, then, the difficulty inherent in translating a video game to film. Many have tried and, when not met with outright apathy from viewers, have been absolutely slated – and hated. The few times they’ve been successful – and it’s very, very few times that a video game movie has been both commercially and critically successful – I firmly believe it’s because there’s been a clear understanding of, and passion for, the source material.
I’m somewhat surprised that Detective Pikachu turned out as well as it did. Though Pokémon has – for over 20 years now – been an enduring phenomenon, I could never have envisaged that it would work in live action. Perhaps it was wise of the filmmakers to stay away from the main series, with its focus on battling and training Pokémon, and instead fix their gaze on the relatively little-known, noir-ish mystery of 3DS game, Detective Pikachu. Not only that, but there really is a clear understanding of Pokémon here, with some fantastic fan service; just as one example, the pink, balloon-esque Jigglypuff – who’s desperate to entertain people, but is forever frustrated by the fact that its beautiful song always sends listeners to sleep – even gets a faithful-to-the-lore cameo.
The basic premise is this: failed Pokémon Trainer Tim Goodman’s detective father, Harry, is killed in an accident involving a genetically engineered Pokémon; Harry’s partner, a coffee-addicted, amnesiac Pikachu, shows up looking for answers as to what happened – drawing Tim into an increasingly dangerous mystery that sees them both uncovering a conspiracy in Rime City, where humans supposedly live in harmony with Pokémon.
Along the way, there are some surprising twists and turns. Not everything lands – there’s a final twist that makes less and less sense the more you think about it – but what does work is incredibly satisfying. Not least because the majority of the Pokémon have been very well realised; the design of the creatures – updated from their simplistic, cartoony (originally pixelated) forms – is great for the most part. Pikachu himself is a pretty amazing CGI creation; his animation and overall furry look sells him as a real creature. I was particularly taken with the Bulbasaurs but not especially keen on the monkey-like Aipom – but they do at least get a very effective scene despite their less-than-appealing look.
It’s somewhat serious in tone at times, which is likely surprising for those used to the cheery blue skies and carefree wilderness exploring of the main Pokémon games. The games themselves tend to be full of bright colours, an emphasis on low-stakes exploration and a sense of harmless fun. Tonally, the movie hews closer to the original Pokémon manga which – shockingly, for those used to the jauntiness of the animé series and childlike wonder of the video games – was at times very dark.
The main actors acquit themselves well in their roles; Pikachu himself, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, is at times like a furry, child-friendly version of Deadpool – but it works, despite the voice being initially jarring when emerging from the cute, usually high pitched character. Justice Smith is an excellent, relatable lead, often exasperated and frustrated by his little yellow companion – he’s the straight man to Pikachu’s wisecracking, comedic detective. Not everyone is served well by the material, however – Bill Nighy is unfortunately stuck, for most of the film, delivering thankless, seemingly endless exposition as the genius behind the creation of Rime City.
Though the general tone may be a surprise for some, it does work to give older viewers a more intriguing and mature story than we were expecting – and, providing that players aren’t familiar with the original Detective Pikachu game, some unexpected turns in the plot too.
Overall then, Detective Pikachu joins the very small line-up of video game adaptations that actually work – and, despite giving the Pokémon themselves a ‘realistic’ look, the filmmakers have done so in a way that retains their charm. Which is more than can be said for the current look of 2019’s other big video game movie adaptation, Sonic the Hedgehog, whose look can most charitably be described as ‘wrong’. Though the backlash to Sonic’s horrifically misguided design has led the filmmakers to go back to the drawing board, it does remain to be seen how successful this will be. In all honesty, after seeing the trailer, it seems to me that the horrible design of the main character isn’t the only issue the movie needs to overcome.
I digress, however. Forget Sonic and any other video game adaptations: what’s great about Detective Pikachu is that it stands as a decent film that leans on its source material enough to be successful, but not so much as to alienate more casual viewers who may be unfamiliar with the games. Don’t get me wrong: complete novices will likely be baffled at some of the events that unfold, with a few moments relying on at least a basic knowledge of Pokémon lore to truly understand – but it’s not impenetrable, in my opinion. It’s funny, exciting and more importantly, feels like a Pokémon film.
Judging by its commercial success, it’s going to be the first of many – which is certainly not an unwelcome proposition. Where they go with it, following the final twist, is currently a mystery – but one that I look forward to unravelling at some point in the next few years.
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