Pokémon began in 1996 as a video game for Nintendo’s Game Boy. It has become the second best-selling video game franchise of all time. The anime series, based on the characters in the video game, has become one of the most successful adaptations of all time. The merchandise like toys and trading cards are some of the best-selling merchandise ever. Dozens of Japanese animated films have been made, as this franchise is very much a Japanese property. This is the first live-action feature in that franchise. Given last year’s triumph of Asian representation with hit films like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), and given the backlash against films like Ghost in the Shell (2017), one would think that the executives at Warner Bros. and director and co-writer Rob Letterman would want to avoid overlooking an Asian actor to be the lead in a huge Asian property. Yet, they do.
Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Every Day) stars as Tim Goodman, a young insurance appraiser who lives in a world where Pokémon exist. Pokémon are magical animals. People can possess these animals like pets. It’s as if everyone is Eddie Redmayne’s character in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016). Tim is the exception though. He lives in a rural town with his friend who encourages him to catch Pokémon, but Tim isn’t interested in these animals. He’d rather live a quiet and seemingly lonely life. This stems from the fact that his mother died at age 11 and his father practically abandoned him.
When he learns his father has passed away, he travels to the city where his father worked as a police detective to say goodbye. His father lived in Ryme City, a city that was built specifically to be a co-habitation for humans and Pokémon. When Tim first enters the city, the shot of him walking into the city’s center is similar to the shot of the protagonist in Zootopia (2016) entering that film’s major city, which also was a city mostly home to animals. Once he gets there, he discovers that a bigger conspiracy is at play involving his dad’s death. That conspiracy involves a serum that turns the animals into wild, uncontrollable beasts. It’s a very similar conspiracy as in Zootopia.
Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool and The Proposal) co-stars as the voice of Pikachu, a Pokémon animal that looks like a bright yellow rodent that can stand but only stands a foot-and-a-half tall. It looks like a walking-talking plush toy with pointy ears and a long, jagged tail. His signature power is that he can shoot electricity. What’s special about him is that Tim can understand Pikachu. Normally, the Pokémon make animal noises that are their own language that most humans don’t comprehend. However, Pikachu speaks perfect English to Tim and only to Tim, and if anyone knows Reynolds’ brand of humor, as exemplified in Deadpool, then that’s what Pikachu is. It’s just one-liner after one-liner, which are hit-or-miss comedy wise.
There’s a one-liner about climate change that landed with a big thud, and I’m someone who believes in climate change. Otherwise, this movie feels like a flimsy excuse for these two characters, Tim and Pikachu, to go around and run into various Pokémon characters to show off how cute and weird they are. It’s a roll call film of Pokémon characters. If you’re a fan of the video game or cartoons, then there’s a joy from simply seeing these characters brought to the big screen, trading much in the same currency as comic books when adapting their characters to film. Unfortunately, the story here is so flimsy.
The mystery or detective story in Zootopia was way more interesting and logical. For totally animated figures, it had way more character development. Letterman’s previous film was Goosebumps (2015), which is essentially a kid’s film that was just an excuse for live-action actors to run around with CGI characters. However, given the literary connection, Goosebumps had much more of a sense of horror and danger that this film lacks. This film is more a mystery and adventure, which would be fine if the mystery and adventure were more exciting.
For example, there is a scene toward the end that felt like the parade scene in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989). Burton’s scene had more interesting aesthetics and stakes. Letterman never really establishes the stakes or even what the the villain is thinking, beyond some dumb reason he shouts or espouses. There’s also a reveal at the end of the second act that undermines the narrative all together.
Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert! Spoiler alert!
A Pokémon character named Mewtwo is introduced as having supreme intelligence and supreme psychic powers. Tim learns that Mewtwo can even bring Tim’s father, Harry Goodman, back to life. Actually, Tim’s father is near death and Mewtwo is able to preserve him somehow. There’s this premise where Tim has to be brought to Mewtwo in order for him to bring Harry back from the dead. However, it makes no sense as to why Mewtwo simply doesn’t go to Tim himself. Mewtwo can fly and has all these powers. It’s ridiculous that Mewtwo wouldn’t just fly to Tim.
Going back to the Asian representation aspect, Smith is biracial or half African-American, so having him be the lead isn’t whitewashing as was the case in Ghost in the Shell. Of course, having an African-American as the lead of a blockbuster film is great for diversity overall. Yet, it doesn’t help with the fact that so much Asian properties have been co-opted or usurped as not to have Asians in the forefront or as the face of it.
There is a young Asian actor in this film. His name is Karan Soni who actually acted opposite Reynolds in Deadpool. I don’t know why he couldn’t have been the lead here, except that he’s perhaps too old. Smith is 23 and Soni is 30. However, if one simply searches Google for Asian or Asian-American actors who could play the same age as Smith is playing, it’s easy to come up with a good list. Some examples include Ross Butler (13 Reasons Why), Charles Melton (Riverdale), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner), Manny Jacinto (The Good Place), Harry Shum Jr. (Glee) and Alex Landi (Grey’s Anatomy).
Rated PG for action and rude or suggestive humor.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 44 mins.