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'Pokémon Detective Pikachu': An amiable but forgettable adventure

John Lui

The Straits Times/Asia News Network

 /  Thu, May 9, 2019  /  10:34 am

There was always a chance that this game-to-live action adaptation would be as fresh and fun as, say, Wreck-It Ralph (2012) or The Lego Movie (2014).

What these two films have in common are characters who question the rules that run their universe, then break them. In other words, they find free will and, in doing so, their humanity. What they do not have are human characters playing key roles.

In this movie, humans are all over the place, and as for rules, well, good luck finding them.

In this first live-action movie adaptation of the Pokemon game and cartoon franchise, every person on Earth has a Pokemon companion. Tim (Justice Smith) has to discover why his father Harry is missing. In Ryme City, where Harry lives, humans and Pokemon creatures co-exist as equals. There, Tim stumbles on Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), his father's companion.

The story begins with the traditional Pokemon world: Charmanders, Ludicolos and Snubbulls are wild animals, to be captured with Poke Balls, then trained for fights. It then moves to Ryme City, a utopia built by charismatic billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), in which Pokemons are equal to humans.

This could be the set-up for a class-struggle story ("Forget it. I don't work Toontown," says hard-boiled detective Valiant, played by Bob Hoskins, in 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Instead, the story throws humans, Squirtles and Bulbasaurs together in a chaotic mix.

Read also: 'Pokémon: The First Movie' remake embraces CGI

In Ryme City, Pokemons are pets, personal assistants, gladiators and urban fauna, like pigeons or lizards. They are at once sentient and non-sentient, having agency and having none.

That jazzy looseness can sometimes be liberating, but in this family movie, it is more liable to leave one bewildered.

Pokemons appear when necessary for fan service or plot convenience. Pikachu, for example, whose speech is non-human in canon, is given a stand-up comic's wit, in English (although he has broken the language barrier before, in animation).

There are a couple of moments when a particular Pokemon uses a particular power to get the young-adult amateur sleuths, Tim (Justice) and his crush, reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton), out of a jam, but the creatures feel generic and interchangeable.

The entire construction feels like the classic committee decision: cute young-adult protagonists, the use of a riffing Reynolds for quips and star power and a proper British actor in Nighy to lend the affair some credibility.

All of it is an amiable adventure peopled by characters who will be forgotten five minutes after the credits roll.

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This article appeared on The Straits Times newspaper website, which is a member of Asia News Network and a media partner of The Jakarta Post