We have the technology to create anything on the screen, and we keep using that technology to create realistic things. JJ Abrams helped usher in an era of monsters that are based on real biology, that look like they could really exist, which has led to a glut of boring and samey looking CGI monsters. The Transformers movies gave us robots that had every single gear, piston and rivet that would be needed to change from a humanoid to a vehicle, and that meant incomprehensibly complicated designs that had no personality. And even going beyond CGI, our superhero movies have these depressingly low-imagination tendency of keeping the characters in tactical outfits, basically less colorful and less wild versions of their iconic comic book costumes.
Realism is the disease. Detective Pikachu is the cure.
I’m not going to tell you this movie is good, as that would be irresponsible. This movie is stupid, and it is so badly written that I’m not surprised it has five credited writers. The third act is a disaster, grafted on from another movie (Burton’s Batman, to be specific), and the dialogue is irritating and the movie’s approach to solving mysteries is suffering from longterm lead poisoning. And the acting! I really liked Justice Smith in The Get Down, but here he’s drowning while playing against a CGI Pikachu. Ryan Reynolds is terribly miscast as Pikachu – the better choice would have been Idris Elba, because having a tough guy voice come out of Pikachu would not only have been funnier but would have served the ending better (no spoilers). Ken Watanabe pets a Pokemon, so it has that going for it…
But setting aside all of the structural and performance stuff that doesn’t quite work, Detective Pikachu is a really engaging and fun movie because it so whole-heartedly rejects realism. But it doesn’t do so in a silly or nonsensical way. Rather, the film takes its own reality seriously but doesn’t extend the same courtesy to realism.
The world seen in Detective Pikachu seems to be a lot like our own, with the exception that Pokemon exist and always have existed. There’s a reality to the world created, but that reality isn’t beholden to realism – the Pokemon look just like their cartoon versions, if a bit more detailed. They haven’t been designed, Sonic the Hedgehog style, to be more ‘realistic’ but are rather clearly cartoony. They have powers that make no sense, or that are silly (our heroes at one point are chased by vicious Pokemon whose tongues are so long they are wrapped around their necks like scarves), and the film makes no attempt to ground them in science or even physics.
And thank god for that. The film itself is weird – one part by design, one part due to the fact that the writing is so bad – and that weirdness is what makes it special and engrossing. More than the weirdness, it’s how the movie handles the weirdness that works – Watanabe is a hard-bitten police lieutenant having a difficult conversation with a young man about his dead father… while his fuzzy bulldog faced cartoony Pokemon growls in the corner of the frame. The movie doesn’t make a joke of this, but rather just plays the scene straight (or as straight as a dopey PG take on a noir would play such a scene) and it’s beautiful. It’s magnificent.
The whole movie is like this. Pokemon are in just about every scene, bringing their cartoon reality comfortably into the real world, and the two co-exist nicely. There have been a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit comparisons made about this movie, and while Detective Pikachu is nowhere near as good as that film, aesthetically it’s similar – there are cartoons running around and they do not inherently undermine the reality of the world being created.
What’s really nice about this decision is that the Pokemon are cute as hell and very funny. I’ll always be the kind of guy who loves seeing a fight scene interrupted by a creature who needs to shout its own name out, and Detective Pikachu gives me that. It gives me these omnipresent creatures – so many varieties of them! – and never tries to explain them or make them ‘real.’ And that makes them even realer as a result, since they’re just part of this world and everyone accepts them.
This is the antidote to realism. It’s not having characters make wisecracks about each other’s costumes or code names, it’s just accepting that these things exist in this world. Full stop. Nobody needs to say “Isn’t it really weird that your Pokemon partner is a duck monster that explodes when it gets stressed” because it isn’t weird, not in this world. And when the movie treats it as not weird, we get to treat it as not weird. And when we get to treat it as not weird we get to enjoy big, broad, colorful fun things.
That is the point of these fucking movies. To have big, broad, colorful things. I can’t believe that we had so many movies based on transforming robots that were not fun in any significant way, and that had no cool-looking robots. Realistic isn’t cool. Yes, you want to have a general sense that this thing would work, but that’s why the Pokemon wrap their tongues around themselves like scarves, because otherwise they would trip on them. This is the level of realism I need, not some fucking biologist coming in to consult and create a realistic mouth mechanism by which these Pokemon could have tongues this long. They just do! It’s fun! It’s wild! I am pleased!
The movie is doing pretty well, and I hope that other filmmakers adapting the endless glurge of fantastical IP sees what works so well in Pikachu. Hint: it’s not Ryan Reynolds’ phoning in his lines, but rather the truly magical way the world of Pokemon is brought to live action fairly intact. This is the true culmination of the CGI revolution – giving us exceptionally unrealistic things in a way that makes them feel realistic while never once sacrificing their unrealistic qualities.
I’ll tell you, I don’t really care to see a sequel to Detective Pikachu, but I am itching to see more live action movies set in the Pokemon universe. I was just a little too old to really get into Pokemon – I’m familiar with them enough to get what’s happening in the movie, unlike some of my audience members who walked out with big questions the movie bravely never addressed, but not enough to know the lore – and this film, with its mixture of non-realism and reality just set my brain on fire with questions. Like, the good kind that I want to see explored. Does the President of the United States have a Pokemon partner? If so, do people judge candidates by which Pokemon they’ve paired with? Are rental agreements impacted by the relative danger/annoyance level of your Pokemon partner (who the fuck wants a Psyduck in their building?)? What is the intelligence level of a Pokemon, and what is their opinion of this world in which they get trapped in balls and forced to fight like dogs? What’s the lifespan of a Pokemon anyway? I’m sure many of these questions have been answered in some game/comic/cartoon, but I’d love to see them explored in live action.
This is the fun part, where the cartoon and the reality meet and the ways they interact become interesting without having to compromise either aspect. This is the thing that Detective Pikachu does excellently, and it truly makes up for its other less-grand aspects.