With his background in CG animation, Goosebumps director Rob Letterman makes sense as a choice to helm the live-action translation of one of the 90s’ most enduring media properties. The best parts of this adaptation of the Pokémon games, based on 2016 spin-off Detective Pikachu, are the textures of its reimagined designs of beloved creatures from the series, which vary from cute to unsettling. If you don’t yet know what a Lickitung is, you might not forget after this.
Then again, maybe you will, because when it comes to making a story to engage a wider mass audience beyond the admittedly large established fanbase, the filmmakers don’t seem to have been that concerned with catching ‘em all.
It may seem strange to suggest that a take on such a famous franchise needs to, among other things, better contextualise the how and why of Pokémon in the wider world they operate in. One can argue that Pokémon: The First Movie (1999) didn’t need to explain its universe to achieve commercial success, but that film was a big screen continuation of the adventures in the popular TV anime.
Detective Pikachu is a fresh story – or as fresh as a story that basically apes Who Framed Roger Rabbit can be – that is, crucially, set in a world akin to those of the main games. Unlike Letterman’s Goosebumps, this isn’t a cinematic world with a meta bent, where Pokémon is a pop culture property whose characters make their way into a ‘real world’. The mode of storytelling then, as backed up by scenes centred on the magic and wonder of certain creatures, should be one of introduction, not just catering to the fans.
Would the world-building problems be easier to accept if the film was better? As it is, the action-comedy – with flat jokes and not great action — rarely pops, despite its concept of Ryan Reynolds applying his Deadpool schtick to Pokémon’s mascot, albeit on a warmer comedic register. One throwaway joke of his about climate change denial jars; is climate change a thing in the Poké-world?