Pokémon Detective Pikachu: Separating Fandom From Assessment
I'm just going to put it out there. I have loved Pokémon since I was a child. The earliest iterations of the game came out when I was old enough to understand fanaticism. That was it. Red and Blue were the portal way. Gold and Silver were the right path forward. Ruby and Sapphire came out when I was a teenager and thought I was too cool for kiddy games. I played Diamond and Pearl a few years later. So on and so forth.
The anime was something I adored as a child, but truly cannot stand as an adult now. Most of Ash's wins were illogical and had nothing to do with actual combat logistics. He teaches a tale of morality by releasing Pokémon into the wild (or giving them away), yet he continuously strives to win the toughest tournaments (I don't believe he has beaten any iteration of the Elite Four in twenty freaking years). The show was a stern hand clinging onto the video games: it went along for the ride, but barely ever tried to be its own thing. I have not seen the Origins miniseries, but I've been told it's much better. Maybe I will get to it one day (probably not).
Still, the video games have been something I have clung to for most of the franchise's duration. Go was a little different: I gave it a chance, and understood it as a fitness app and social instigator that featured Pokémon, rather than a full on Pokémon game. That's okay then. It's still going strong, and it's done quite a lot of good for people. As for Sword and Shield, I simply cannot wait.
Why does any of this matter? Well, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is going to be in theatres very soon. It has been receiving lukewarm reviews so far, with the major complaints being one of two sore points: a lacklustre story, and the heavy reliance on the pocket monsters. I will be reviewing the film in a few days, but want to briefly discuss the latter issue now. I am of course a Pokémon fan. This film was made for people like me, who purchase the new games on opening day, and bust their asses to get through the game as quickly as possible. For those who make fun of the Pokémon made out of keys, sand castles, and even literal garbage, there are some of us that will somehow try and defend these creative choices. Some critics complain that there are too many unknown critters running around. Some of us know who they are.
Does that excuse a bland or flawed story, though? The easiest defence is to barge in and say "this isn't meant to be The Red Shoes. This is for Pokémon fans!". While this is true, the two major issues critics have are interesting, because they split the argument of fan-based-filmmaking down the middle. Is it a legitimate problem that a non-player cannot tell you what an Emolga is? Yes and no. If a film establishes a series of species with enough depth that it all makes sense systematically, it shouldn't be of any concern. Think of the Star Wars films and their countless species of alien beings. We don't need to know what Ratts Tyrell is, what powers he might have, or what he ate for breakfast the morning his podracer exploded. We don't see him engaging with Anakin Skywalker in any important way, so his backstory is brief, and his screen time is short. His species does nothing but add more length to the never ending universe in the franchise: a necessity that makes the series enjoyable for super fans, and detailed for the most particular of critics.
In Pokémon Detective Pikachu, it may begin to become an issue for an uninformed critic, if these monsters begin using their powers in any sort of way. Why is this yellow flying squirrel shooting lightning bolts? Oh, it must be electric. Then that green frog with the bulb on its back must be a plant type or something. What on earth is this black and white sleeping bear? The snoozing type? Wait, these things have properties, now? I can see why the dragon can burn a plant creature, but why is the ninja frog getting destroyed by the pink bulldog?
This is the grey area. Can you really deduct points if a film is made for a specific fanbase that had grown up with these characters ingrained in the backs of their minds? Snubbull can destroy a Greninja, because fairy typing is doubly strong against dark. I know this. However, Peter Travers may not. Does this make for lazy storytelling? Should a film geared towards decades long fans have to explain the hours long technicalities that the games (and even the anime, when Pikachu isn't beating an Onyx, of course; see, the anime is stupid) have instilled? I don't think so. It isn't the lazy "this works because of magic and fantasy" defence that a lot of films may cling to, because the answers are all in the many other works of this franchise.
Yet, does this film being for a fanbase excuse its fundamental errors? Ignoring the Pokémon species putting some critics off, a flawed story is a flawed story. Cinema is a fundamental medium with formulas that need to be fulfilled correctly (or incorrectly in a purposeful, non lazy, imaginative way). Missing the mark is inexcusable, no matter what the film is about. The Pokémon fan in me obviously wants this film to be good. The film critic in me (the part of me that takes precedent when it comes to cinema) is hoping for a cohesive, solid film, just like this were any other film I was grading.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu won't question my allegiance to the franchise, because I am a fan of the games no matter what. Plus, you can also have more than one feeling about a film. I'm allowed to enjoy the film as the first live action Pokemon film ever, whilst having major reservations about the film altogether. In the days of social media, where allegiance is easily questioned by keyboard devil's advocates, and people may feel forced to swear complete devotion to the groups they follow, just remember this. The point of having Pokemon Black and White as the fifth generation themes, was to connect to other players with the opposing game and enjoy the grey area in between. You can love the Pokémon coming to life, while criticizing the film. You can love the story and not like how the Pokémon look. It won't make you any less of a fan. As for non-fans, while a bigger picture may be required, do not let it pressurize you into thinking you have to like something right away if you are giving a film like this chance.
Either way, expect our Pokémon Detective Pikachu review in a few days.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.