So guess what I saw last Friday?
The world’s first live-action Pokémon has been out for three days and has proven to be a success with audiences, rolling towards a fifty-five million dollar opening. Which is pretty good, seeing as Soulless Cash Grab: Endgame is still out there raking in millions.
But what is it about Detective Pikachu that makes it so good? That allows it to resonate with audiences? And why do crusty old critics hate it so much?
Join me under the cut as I answer these questions and more!
A Video Game Movie Done Right
Here’s the thing: a live-action Pokémon movie should have been a failure. The franchise is weird. It’s about a world inhabited by strange animals with superpowers that you, as the protagonist, collect and battle. Sure, kids who grew up in the nineties and stuck with it over the last twenty years will get it, but the general audience? Eh…
Then there’s the additional problem of CGI. Let’s be honest here, CGI is something of a mixed bag. You can do all kinds of crazy shit with it, but it’s not good yet at doing real people or characters that have to interact with the world for an extended period of time. Obviously this depends greatly on budget and passion for the project; Godzilla (2014)‘s monsters rampage through the landscape with believable force, while Sonic the Hedgehog (2019) looks like a guy in an oversaturated blue mascot costume.
But Detective Pikachu should have been more like Sonic than Godzilla, with it’s heavy reliance on CGI characters. Nearly every shot in the movie has some kind of CGI character in it. Combined with the weird design of most Pokémon, Detective Pikachu should have lived in the Uncanny Valley and freaked out everybody.
But it didn’t. Why?
The Pokémon Company
First off, a big asset in Detective Pikachu‘s favour was The Pokémon Company’s passion for the project. Rather than let Legendary-Warner Bros. run wild, The Pokémon Company instead kept a careful eye on the whole project. There was an expert on-site to consult with the filmmakers everyday, for example.
Because The Pokémon Company kept such a close eye on the project, all the Pokémon look and feel right. They behave the way they’re supposed to, even if it’s a little gross (thanks, Lickitung).
Director Rob Letterman Isn’t A Fan…But He Is A Professional
At best, Letterman has only shown a passing familiarity with the franchise pre-DP. And that could have been a problem, as a lot of directors who aren’t familiar with the material they’re adapting let their disdain or confusion show in the final product.
Of course, if Letterman had been a hardcore fan of Pokémon, that could have posed it’s own problems. Fans often get wrapped up in minutiae or in-jokes or private theories and grudges and forget that the movies need to appeal to wider audiences, too.
Rob Letterman managed to avoid all of these problems. Instead, he focused on delivering a fully-crafted, well-thought out world that was respectful to it’s source material while not getting bogged down in it and at the same time listening to the advice of those who have been in the franchise for a long time.
That’s professionalism, folks. And it extended to the rest of the cast and crew as well. Everybody else is just as dedicated, just as committed to the project as the director was, regardless of whether or not they were fans before the movie (Bill Nighy, in particular, is on record as having been converted during production).
Let’s not kid ourselves here: animation is expensive. Like, make a billionaire blanch expensive.
So if you want the CGI to look good, then you need to fork over the cash. And Legendary-Warner did.
Strictly speaking, Detective Pikachu doesn’t actually fall into this sub-genre of mystery. But it’s pretty close:
- All the clues that our titular detective and Tim Goodman see are actually on-screen so we get to see them too.
- The criminal is introduced early in the story (indeed, he’s one of the first characters introduced period) but we don’t get to see inside his head.
- Tim Goodman, our Watson for all intents and purposes, is neither stupid nor does he conceal anything from us. While not as good a detective as Pikachu, he is easily able to keep up with his partner.
- The bad guy is an old white guy, not some poor minority suspect.
The rest of the rules get bent a little over the course of the story (Pikachu didn’t commit the crime, but is still a part of it; all the Pokémon are supernatural beings to begin with; etc.), but the point is the movie plays fair with us. All the twists are built into the story and the logic of the world around it, they don’t come out of left field.
Film critics, who watch thousands upon thousands of movies a year, don’t care much for fair-play whodunnits. They’ve seen every twist coming already and they like it when a movie surprises them.
Audiences don’t. Audiences much prefer movies that follow their own internal logic and make some kind of sense, which is why there’s currently a twenty-percent difference between the audience and critic scores on Rotten Tomatoes (86 Audience-64 Critic).
Plus a lot of movies have pulled the old shocking swerve move lately, and audiences are kind of tired of it.
The Crest of Sincerity!
Whoops, wrong franchise.
But the sincerity of Detective Pikachu is one of it’s big selling points. This is, ostensibly, a world where Pokémon have always lived and worked alongside humans. It’s a world where the power of friendship and teamwork have actual, tangible benefits.
So it would be weird if the movie was full of eye-rolls or lampshades about some of the weirder or more sentimental aspects of Pokémon. While this might have helped sell the movie to critics or lazy audience members, it would have jarred terribly with the movie.
Note that this is not the same thing as rejecting cynicism. Cynicism proper is the rejection of easy, popular methods of being happy i.e. the accumulation of wealth.
In that sense, Detective Pikachu is a deeply cynical movie. The main protagonists are, respectively, a detective and an insurance agent. Not exactly the fast track to wealth, there. And of course it’s Harry Goodman’s rejection of money for an illegal act is what kicks the whole plot off.
Further, the main villain’s plan is some kind of mass assimilation plot where humans and Pokémon merge to overcome the pain of being ill and dying. The movie rejects this hard, acknowledging that the relationship between people and Pokémon, and indeed between people, is hard and takes a lot of work.
So. We have a movie that believes in the power of love, friendship and teamwork… while also acknowledging that there is no easy path here. That relationships do take work.
We have seen this before. We’ve seen it in Philip Marlowe and Rick Blaine, in Eddie Valiant and Archie Goodwin and Veronica Mars.
Detective Pikachu is both a movie about the knights in sour armour… and is, in itself, a knight in sour armour.
Down These Mean Streets A Man Must Go Who Is Not Himself Mean, Who Is Neither Tarnished Nor Afraid
Raymond Chandler, in his essay The Simple Art of Murder wrote the best summary of what it means to be a hero, the one who stands up against the pettiness, the cronyism and the cruelty of the world.
None of our heroes are perfect matches for Chandler’s hero but then, neither was Marlowe himself. It doesn’t matter; what matters is that Tim, Pikachu, Harry, Lucy and Psyduck all walk the streets looking for answers. Looking for justice.
Traditional heroes have gotten a bad wrap these days, from people who think they’re boring or clichéd. But what has come to replace them is far more shallow and empty than the heroes that they have replaced. Bland sarcasm, pointless conflict and a strong emphasis on violence have become the hallmarks of pop culture in the last few decades.
But for all that this is a franchise that centres around battling, violence is not the key to unraveling the mystery. Cunning, a deep understanding of Pokémon (Tim, despite claiming to want to have nothing to do with Pokémon, catches on to Mr. Mimes gimmick quickly), love and friendship are what stops the villain.
No Sequel Hook
Much like Godzilla (2014), there’s no sequel hook or franchise set-up at the end.
This is a good thing. It allows The Pokémon Company to leave Detective Pikachu as a glorious one-off, an off-beat experiment that they can look back on with pride, without trapping them into the expectations of a franchise.
And if they do decide to make a sequel, well… it’s a big universe. They can go anywhere they want, now.
Robots and Vampires (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00NDLMDT4): Two hundred years in the future, a young cyborg stops the richest boy in town from killing a gynoid. Now he must flee from the only home he’s ever known to Fort City, base of the mysterious Standard Technologies, Inc. Can he trust them?
The Standard Tech Case Files-The Black Coats (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VTWMR7W): When there’s a corpse on the street, somebody has to answer for that. When the body in question is the squire of a prominent vampire, the call for blood only gets louder. Follow Joey Bianco and his squire Jen Ryan as they hunt down a killer and try to keep the peace between vampires and humans.
The Standard Tech Case Files-The Dead and The Damned (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MRSBC7I): Tensions between humanity and vampires are heating up. A vampire store has been ransacked. Protestors are being arrested without trial. Can Joey Bianco and Jen Ryan find a peaceful solution? Or will the streets of Fort City run red with blood?