By Derek May:
YIN: Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Full disclosure: I don’t know a whole lot about Pokémon. I veered more to the Yugi-O side of the anime-dueling spectrum, and so I went into this new big-budget, live-action premiere of the mega Japanese franchise with little to no expectations—at least about the property. The movie really sold me on the duo of Ryan Reynolds (the comedic god who brought my spirit animal Deadpool to life) and Justice Smith, who first impressed me with his turn in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I figured with this duo in the lead and an interesting take on the franchise, it should at least be an enjoyable roller-coaster of popcorn shenanigans.
And while Pokémon Detective Pikachu definitely is that, I was astounded by the depth of dramatic story and character pathos layered throughout, really elevating the film out of intellectual property cash-grab and into a truly heartfelt family adventure.
So, okay, if you’re like me and merely know Pokémon in passing, let me set the stage as I see it: in this reality, humans live beside a species of semi-sentient creatures known collectively as Pokémon that are imbued with a variety of superhuman powers. As seems logical, mankind captures, trains, and pits these lifeforms against each other in gladiatorial fights for our amusement. Typical kids stuff. If that rubs you a bit the wrong way, you aren’t alone, as that’s somewhat of a jumping off point for this current story which takes place in a city built by magnate Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) who wanted a place where humans and Pokémon might live together in peace. It’s a noble sentiment that, as you might imagine, doesn’t go exactly to plan.
At the more granular level, we find Tim Goodman (Smith) receive news of the untimely demise of his father, a detective in said utopian city. Though estranged from his dad, Tim nevertheless accepts the responsibility to deal with his father’s affairs, and gets caught up in the very same case. By his side is his father’s Pokémon, an adorable yellow furball of the species Pikachu who fancies himself every bit the detective his former partner was. For mysterious reasons, Tim and Pikachu can understand each other (a rare occurrence) and team up to discover what befell Tim’s father.
From here, the story has plenty of engaging twists, turns, and red herrings, everything you might expect from an old-school mystery. Some of the threads get a bit stretched for a while, but in the end, it all surprisingly comes together fairly neatly. But the real tale is in Tim’s journey to heal the wounds of his childhood and his issues with his father in order to find some true purpose and happiness in his life. And who doesn’t need a sarcastic, caffeine-addicted puff of furry lightning to help you through such dark times?
Director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs Aliens) does a skillful job of weaving a tone of somber mirth. The movie is by no means dour, but it deals with mature themes far above its paygrade. But it’s precisely the subversive and witty humor that softens the blow. The film is shot in a darker, noir style with plenty of shade and shadow, but the juxtaposition of the bright primary colors and achingly cute creatures eschews melancholy for enchantment. It gives the film a groundedness amongst the absurdity. That being said, there are times I would have preferred a little less gritty realism in favor of more otherworldliness, particularly in the design of the city. A metropolis built for the coexistence of humans and Pokémon would seemingly have more architecture devoted to what Pokémon need: for example, rather than leaving monkey-like creatures to climb metallic neon signs, shouldn’t there be special tree-like structures more akin to what they might have in the wild?
It’s fairly clear that humans are the priority in this world and that Pokémon are subservient, but that doesn’t mean the relationships are purely one-sided. Many of the pairings are painted as mutual, as with reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her adorable Psyduck with the exploding brain. And of course, there’s Tim and Pikachu, who must learn to work together if they are ever going to survive. Their relationship is the crux of the film in multiple ways and ends up having far-reaching consequences for both themselves and the world at large.
Keeping the tone on its even keel are the performances of Reynolds and Smith, who play off each other from opposite tacks but somehow form a believable and significant bond. I gotta admit that as much as I love Reynolds, the jokes taken out of context and plugged into the trailers had me prepared for a stomach-churning level of saccharine nonsense that thankfully was much diluted in the final product. In context, those same jokes land far better, and Pikachu’s off-kilter perspective and delivery is parceled out appropriately and ultimately given a reasonable justification. It’d be easy to say Reynolds’ is just rehashing his usual shtick, but he really finds a way to keep an emotional throughline connecting the goofball one-liners. As a father himself, I think Reynolds has the ability to tap into that dynamic as a whimsical mentor who may not have all the answers, but will certainly be with you for the discovery.
Smith, likewise, gets plenty of at-bats to knock out his own jokes, but with the heavier dramatic burden, his job is to maintain the human core of the film. It’s no easy feat to play the many dimensions of a not-quite-teen, not-quite-adult weighed down by his emotional baggage, but Smith somehow is able to deliver humor, sadness, grief, curiosity, and even awkward charm while holding the audience’s attention with each frame. He’s got a sly self-awareness that helps undercut some of the stranger aspects of the film, offering a perfect gateway for the audience and a hero they can instantly relate to.
The effects are on par with what you’d expect from a modern-day CGI-spectacle—no more, no less. We’re not privy to all that much originality here, but that’s ok, as the very point is to blend the animated and live-action elements so that they exist seamlessly together. The Pokémon themselves are detailed enough to be passably real, but are carefully designed to honor their original incarnations. There’s no doubting which Pokémon are which, and fans should enjoy recognizing all of their favorites.
On the other hand, those fans expecting too much adherence to the original show might be a bit disappointed. As my far-more-knowledgeable friends bemoaned afterward, there were several missed opportunities for call-backs and cameos within the existing story, enough that it seems plausible the creators purposefully skirted them. Perhaps they wanted this initial entry to feel more accessible to the lay person—which as a layperson, I’d say was accomplished. But I can see where longtime fans might have wanted some frosting on their cake. Should this film prove the success it seems to be, however, I have no doubt fans will eventually have their fill.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu should placate the casual movie-goer as well as hardcore fans, offering a meaty dramatic story interlaced with plenty of requisite action and battles. The story is a little convoluted in places, but in a world of gladiatorial pets and their “trainers,” we’re given far more feast than famine. If you’re on the fence, I say give it a shot. It’s delightful springtime fun at the movies with engaging characters and plenty of spectacle. The kids will enjoy the silly shenanigans while the adults can sink their teeth into the weighty relationships.
In a word, “Go!”
YANG: Cobra Kai Season 2
The first season of YouTube’s continuation of the Karate Kid franchise was lightning in a bottle. It enriched and expanded each character from the saga in sincere and heartbreakingly human ways, while still being hilarious fun with a nice jolt of action. It was a revelation as to what a respectful and skillful team of storytellers could do to elevate an entertaining but often restricted property to modern relevancy. I was elated at what they accomplished! As a longtime fan, it was everything I hoped it could be and more. And so the prospect of continuing that story excited me beyond words . . . and filled me with dread. The bar was so high, how could the creators possibly match or exceed it? Could lightning really strike twice?
Indeed it can.
Season 2 of Cobra Kai not only continues the measured and insightful development of these characters and their ongoing rivalries, but in many ways progresses up another level. While the first season tracked the reemergence of Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and his self-proclaimed “bad-ass” Cobra Kai dojo with a new troupe of students who eventually return the school to champion status, the new season chooses not to rest on those laurels. Rising up isn’t enough: the real challenge is what to do once you’re here.
The finale of the previous season saw Johnny’s star pupil and surrogate son Miguel (Xolo Maridueña) embrace Johnny’s no-mercy teachings, winning the All Valley tournament at the cost of injuring Johnny’s son and Miyagi-Do student Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan). The realization on Johnny’s face as to what he’d done was seminal. But now the real question comes to the forefront: Are the teachings of Cobra Kai as malevolent as Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) had always claimed? Is there a way to truly balance the “badass” no-mercy philosophy of the style with honor, respect, and self-control? These are the themes Johnny struggles with throughout the new season, embodied by the devil of returning sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove) and the tarnished angel of LaRusso’s far more passive Miyagi-Do.
By the end of the season, there does seem to be an answer—though a complicated one—which I certainly won’t spoil here suffice to say that Johnny is forced to face some hard truths. His relationship with Kreese is one of the most stirring and conflicting explorations. For years, Kreese was simply the black hat to Miyagi’s white, a cardboard villain who represented the purely physical and domineering aspects of the martial arts. But once again, the creators have found ways to elicit real humanity and nuance while still staying true to the core character. The way Kreese works his way back into Johnny’s life answers one of the lingering questions from the films, which is why any student would stick around to be taught by a man with such ruthless and sadistic tendencies? In the end, it’s because Kreese can be quite seductive and manipulative (after all, he did fake his own death in Karate Kid III). Given this and Johnny’s own path of redemption, we can understand why he might offer a second chance to the man who tried to kill him years ago.
But even more impressive is how Kreese challenges Johnny’s attempts for a better, more balanced Cobra Kai, and how once again Johnny is seduced into considering Kreese’s hard-nosed ways. There’s a definite aspect of Johnny trying to please this demented father figure, but there’s also that lingering conditioning from those early years that still remains. This is expressed in probably my favorite episode of the season (Episode 6, “Take a Right”) in which we see get to see a group of OG Cobra Kai students reuniting. Their reaction to Johnny’s revelation that he’s brought back both CK and Kreese from the ashes and seeing the results of their force-fed merciless mentality speaks volumes. But then, the fact that the physical lessons remain embedded suggests that perhaps Johnny’s balance can be struck. It’s a turning point for him, and one of the most nostalgic and emotionally charged episodes of the series.
Meanwhile, LaRusso steps up to take on Cobra Kai’s challenge full bore. With Cobra Kai’s increasing presence and the return of Kreese, LaRusso has no choice but to counter with a full-fledged school of his own. But like Johnny, Daniel struggles to live up to the measure of his mentor. Modern students have trouble accepting chores as hidden karate lessons, and the setbacks LaRusso and company face are all too understandable. Miyagi-Do is an anachronism, seemingly impossible to compete with the flash and action of Cobra Kai. As someone who teaches traditional martial arts myself, I can totally relate. And this gets at one of the hearts of the division between the styles: people will usually take power over inner peace, and the quick and easy way over the hard.
And that is exactly what we see in the students who are absorbed into the rivalry and begin to breakdown their former ties. Maridueña’s Miguel seems to struggle the most, as we discover he hasn’t quite made the full transformation into a Cobra Kai villain just yet. Especially after being exposed to Kreese, Miguel begins to question things on his own, and bounces back and forth between what seems to be right, and what he knows is right in his heart. His expanding relationship with Johnny is both heartwarming and confusing, as Miguel desperately tries to please everyone, including ex-girlfriend and LaRusso’s daughter Sam (Mary Mouser), his new love interest Tory (Peyton List), his sensei, his mother, and his friends. It’s little wonder that the end of his journey this season is a shocker, both beautiful in its progression and tragic in its fate.
Sam, likewise, is caught between her lingering feelings for Miguel and her budding attraction to Robby. Both she and Robby are being pulled in multiple directions, grappling with teenage angst that is only amplified by their parents’ animosity. Both Sam and Robby try to live up to LaRusso’s ideals and take the high road, but discover that’s the far harder path. By the end, both have made several ill-advised choices, and Robby, for one, may not be able to recover from his.
I could continue for pages still on the rest of the magnificent team, but by this point I think it’s clear that the creators have successfully re-imagined this world in far richer detail than anyone would ever have conceived. There’s enough interconnected drama to fill a soap opera, and yet it never feels hokey or gratuitous. The drama comes from an honest place as each character faces legitimate challenges to their philosophies, life choices, and even preconceived ideas. Though the heroes may be falter in their search for balance, the creators have no such impediments, as the show consistently provides a masterful concoction of drama, humor, action, and insightful commentary in all the right proportions, always choosing to address the tough questions head on rather than placate with easy answers.
It’s little wonder that after decades of failed proposals, Macchio was willing to slip back into the gi for this incarnation. And Zabka and Cove have found renewed notoriety for their performances (I got to speak to Zabka at a con between seasons 1&2, and he couldn’t have been nicer and more humble). The basic conceit of the series has been the battle between LaRusso and Lawrence, and their constant will they/won’t they back and forth keeps us begging to ship these two for some kind of unlikely happy ending. I’m not sure we’ll ever get it, but the recent announcement of a Season 3 (which this time, will be free of charge!) means we’ll keep tuning in to find out. There’s certainly not shortage of questions to resolve, and plenty more characters from this universe still waiting to be explored (a few of which were heavily teased this year). If they can catch that lightning for a third time, Cobra Kai may truly never die.