Given Hollywood’s recent obsession with adapting video games into movies, it isn’t a surprise that a Hollywood studio has finally taken a stab at the Pokemon series. There are hundreds of millions of people who have played at least one traditional Pokemon game, watched the animated TV series, played the popular card game, and/or downloaded the globe-trotting mobile app. Of course, I’m referring to Pokemon Go, a worldwide phenomenon which has brought over one billion people together from all walks of life and grossed over $3 billion in worldwide revenue.
There’s a lot of money to be made from a Pokemon-themed film but what is surprising, however, is how good of a movie Detective Pikachu is. Sure, it’s a cog in a multibillion-dollar empire but Detective Pikachu is more than just product placement. Unlike recent cynical corporate cash-grabs (The Angry Birds Movie, The Emoji Movie), Detective Pikachu is a hopelessly earnest film that captures the spirit of its source material, and for those looking for a nostalgia trip, it’s a pleasant stroll down memory lane – and not just for fans of the Pokemon series, but for those of us who fondly remember family-friendly adventure films from the 80s and early 90s.
Prior to Detective Pikachu, there were already twenty-two Pokémon films produced, but Detective Pikachu marks the first time any studio has attempted a live-action take on the popular gaming franchise. Clearly, director Rob Letterman took notes from Robert Zemeckis’s classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – a film noir set in an alternate version of Golden Age Hollywood in which animated characters share the town with their human counterparts. Here, Justice Smith replaces Bob Hoskins while a computer-generated Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) stands in for the 2D animated Roger Rabbit. The two films share a lot in common both in its film-noir plot and its mix of live-action and animated characters, and like Roger Rabbit, Detective Pikachu’s great strength lies in its bizarre mixup of genres. The homages to Who Framed Roger Rabbit are definitely in check, but this neo-noir, sci-fi, family-friendly murder mystery owes a lot to another classic from the 80s: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.
Detective Pikachu is more than just a Pokémon film, and if there’s just one reason to see this movie, it’s for the gorgeous visuals. The film’s main setting, Ryme City, is a beautiful neon-soaked mix of Tokyo and London, with over-crowded damp streets, towering structures, dark alleys, bright lights, and a hazy neon glow. Credit should be given partly to director and co-writer Rob Letterman, who previously did a decent enough job with the first Goosebumps feature (a surprisingly fun adaptation of the RL Stine children’s monster-book series), but the real star here is veteran cinematographer John Mathieson who insisted on shooting Detective Pikachu on 35 millimeter film instead of digital video. “I always want to shoot on film,” Mathieson tells Vulture. “It’s quite often shot down by the studios because it seems that shooting on film is expensive, and that it’s easier on digital. But I don’t think that’s true at all. We’ve managed to work using film for a hundred years without calamity.” The Oscar-nominated cinematographer best known for his work on Gladiator, X-Men: First Class and Logan, wasn’t shy on listing his primary influence either when shooting Detective Pikachu. “We wanted to make it look like Blade Runner,” Mathieson continued. “A bit shamelessly, in fact.”
Justice Smith on the set of Legendary Pictures’ and Warner Bros. Pictures’ comedy adventure Detective Pikachu, via Giles Keyte and Time Magazine
Detective Pikachu might not be the best video game movie ever made, but it sure looks the best. Shot on location in downtown London in the Scottish Highlands, Mathieson made good use of strong shafts of light and backlighting that helped give the film a look that calls to mind classic black-and-white hardboiled detective stories from the past. In true noir fashion, the film makes great use of shadows and hazy filters and to my surprise, there was very little green screen used. The pocket monsters look fantastic thanks to the decision to use motion capture, a process which helps punctuate every facial expression and avoid the usual CGI flatness that plagues many other CGI films; meanwhile Pikachu himself is rendered amazingly well, with lifelike textures and movements that enhance the performance by Ryan Reynolds and overall the effects help bring these loveable characters to life. As someone who knows little about the franchise, I was impressed by the amount of detail that went into creating so many different types of Pokemon, be it the waddling, explosive Psyduck or the scene-stealing Mr. Mime.
Regardless if you don’t have any interest in the franchise, there is a lot to appreciate about Detective Pikachu, especially from the point of view of a cinephile. A tremendous amount of work went into making Ryme City as vibrant and lived-in as possible and it shows in every frame which oozes with style. There are other reasons to see Detective Pikachu – I especially love Henry Jackman’s catchy electro-orchestral score which helps elevate the mood and I enjoyed the traces to films from my childhood such as Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but overall, it is hard not to love a movie in which so much care and love was put into making it as entertaining as possible for audiences familiar or not familiar with the franchise.
If you’re on the fence about watching Detective Pikachu, I recommend you to give it a chance. There’s more than enough here to please Pokemon fans and non-fans alike. Detective Pikachu is smart, funny, unrelentingly strange and extremely well made.