I felt a bit awkward seeing Pokémon Detective Pikachu in the theater. It’s the first piece of Pokémon material that I’ve willingly seen since I parted ways with it in 2007. Don’t get me wrong, I was obsessed with Pokémon just like every other gullible kid in America. We all danced with the Devil in the pale moonlight, let me tell you.
I watched the show religiously and I could rattle off all 300+ Pokémon like it was nothing. I watched every movie that they put out, I traded cards with my friends from school like they were illegal drugs and sleepovers with friends were like underground Pokémon cage fights. I practically stole my cousin’s DS just so I could play Pokémon Emerald to satisfy my addiction. It was a problem. But by the time I turned 12, Pokémon became passé for me, and I moved onto other popular shows from Japan, like Afro Samurai or Gurren Lagann. The Pokémon craze still claims many souls who are at my age like some kind of Japanese Mephisto, but I evaded its grasp at just the right time. Despite my waning interest in the products, Pokémon still thrived and shoveled out content year after year, gaining interest from a whole new generation of kids with time and money to spend. Even my younger brother got into the craze with his obsession with Pokémon Go. It’s one of the ways that we bond. He shows off a powerful legendary Pokémon that he worked hard to capture, and I share information and old war stories about that Pokémon like some kind of Pokémon ‘Nam veteran. “Back in my day, catching a legendary Pokémon was a hellish and impossible task. Children and their Pokémon died by the thousands in order to achieve greatness, and we liked it that way! All you do is press a button on your phone! You’re all coddled sissies!”
Anyway, when the trailer for Pokémon Detective Pikachu dropped only months ago, I felt like I was seeing an ex-girlfriend again after years of separation and personal growth, and all of the good and bad memories resurfaced. This sounds unappealing, but it’s not all bad. It’s a relief for me to say that Detective Pikachu doesn’t ask you to remember every little detail about the world of Pokémon, which makes it great for any moviegoers who have no idea what a Pokémon is. It’s just asking you to accept it for what it is and have fun with it, which isn’t a tall order. But…….well, we’ll get to the cons in a bit.
To those who have no idea what Pokémon is, let me give you a quick crash course. The movie takes place in the same universe as the games, where sentient animal creatures called Pokémon exist alongside humans. They come in all shapes, sizes, types and each individual Pokémon exhibits different abilities. Pokémon are captured by humans in the wild and are either kept as pets, or they’re trained to fight other Pokémon in tournaments for fun, glory and money. Don’t think about the immoral implications of this, you’ll only get a headache. The main character of the movie is Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) a young insurance salesman who learns that his estranged detective father has died in a car accident while on a case. Tim heads to Ryme city, a metropolis that outlaws Pokémon tournaments and encourages further societal cooperation between humans and Pokémon, to collect his father’s things and make peace with his death. While in his father’s apartment, he meets his father’s Pokémon partner, a talking amnesiac Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) wearing a detective cap who insists that his father is alive and was on to something big that made him a target. As the duo sleuth across the city, they meet a variety of Pokémon, follow mysterious leads and discover a scientific conspiracy involving the legendary Psychic-type Pokémon Mewtwo.
The movie is a tonal mixture of two different movies; Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Blade Runner. Roger Rabbit’s influence is shown through the design and usage of its Pokémon, of which there are a countless number, and how these Pokémon are integrated into this world with humans, much like how cartoons are integrated into society with humans in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Detective Pikachu is essentially the Where’s Waldo of Pokémon movies. There’s always a Pokémon in the background or foreground doing something. Thankfully, the Pokémon aren’t just cheaply inserted into the city for fan service, they’re actually serving a function in this society. For example, we see water-type Pokémon working with firefighters, strong Pokémon helping with construction and other labor related tasks, detectives working with dog-like Pokémon to help sniff out crime and Pokémon who have sound abilities acting as dubstep amps at underground fighting rings. I’d like to own this film on DVD just so I can find all of the Pokémon easter eggs that I missed on my first watch. Not every job for every Pokémon makes perfect sense, however. I’m not sure what the connection between a Psyduck, a psychic duck Pokémon who explodes with psychic energy when it gets overly stressed, and young plucky reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) is, but it’s a minor grievance. I don’t think there are any reporter-type Pokémon. That sounds boring.
The filmmakers went above and beyond to make the Pokémon feel real in this setting, and the photorealistic CGI style looks pretty good on the Pokémon for the most part. It makes them feel like they’re present in the scene. The cutest and most entertaining Pokémon being the titular Detective Pikachu. Some critics have described Ryan Reynold’s performance as “Deadpool without the swearing,” which I think is only half right. Detective Pikachu is clearly lampooning the movie like an MST3K host, much like Deadpool does in his own movies, but Reynolds manages to give a different flavor of comedic delivery to the character, and even manages to sell some of the more dramatic moments in the film. His humor and quips are one of the best parts of the film, along with the entire roster of Pokémon in the city.
The inspiration for the detective theme is also clearly pulled from Who Framed Roger Rabbit (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the main characters are a human and a cartoon looking into a mysterious death), but the main inspiration it pulls from in terms of the theming and the design of the city is Blade Runner. Detective Pikachu is more neo noir inspired than classic noir. There’s a lot of sleuthing in dark alleyways lit up by neon signs, futuristic advertisements, a complicated conspiracy involving illegal technology and dim yet stylistic lighting. It’s the basic futuristic noir package. All of that is fine, but a film noir is nothing without a good mystery at the center of it, and the mystery in Detective Pikachu………well, it’s not very good. Pikachu and Tim do wander around the city looking for clues, and there is a bit of forensic work and investigation on their part. But most of the clues practically drop in their laps, and there isn’t a real sense of accomplishment as the plot unfolds. Most of the big discoveries are lazily told through exposition via holograms, which is just a borderline inexcusable way for the writers to dispense information in a detective movie. The characters aren’t figuring this stuff out themselves, they’re flat out being told what’s happening in difficult to swallow chunks. Add on the fact that when you get right down to it, the mystery isn’t that difficult to solve. You don’t need to use your Sherlock Holmes mind palace to deduce who’s behind everything and what their motive is. By the time the plot twists hit, the audience is already two steps ahead of everybody onscreen. All we’re left with after those twists are loud, semi-entertaining action sequences that tend to slightly amuse and mostly bemuse. It’s essentially the movie’s admission that they can’t keep the kids’ attention with the detective stuff, so they resort to colorful action to stop them from falling asleep.
I suppose I’m being a bit tough on the movie. I wasn’t expecting this to be Agatha Christie levels of brilliant. It’s Pokémon, for God’s sake. It’s the byproduct of a multimedia franchise hell-bent on sucking money out of children. This ain’t exactly Tennessee Williams. As is, it’s a slightly above average Pokémon movie. And yet, as I sat there in my seat feeling put off about the main plot’s failings, I felt a pang of effort and love in the stitching of the film. I honestly felt like the designers and writers actually cared about the Pokémon that they were representing, because it’s very likely they grew up with it just like I did. The Pokémon in this movie didn’t look or feel like manufactured, updated or “modern” versions of Pokémon, they looked and felt like real Pokémon. There was a clear effort to celebrate these colorful creatures and the impact they had on our childhood and beyond. I thought the gumshoe aspects of it were a misstep, but I never got the impression that the filmmakers didn’t care. If anything, it felt like they cared too much. I didn’t expect the movie to successfully make me empathize with a talking Pikachu, much less tolerate him, but here we are!
I think kids who are obsessed with Pokémon will dig this movie, much like how people from my generation were obsessed with Pokémon: Mewtwo Strikes Back despite its massive flaws. That was the Faustian deal that us kids made with the Pokémon Company: Put a Pokémon on it, and we’ll buy it. We signed it in blood. It’s still in effect to this day. There are adults who grew up with Pokémon who are taking their kids to see this movie, and this will be their first exposure to it. That’s why I think this movie will probably spawn more Pokémon live action movies. There will never be a scantness of fans. Do I think that’s a bad thing? Not necessarily. I’d just like a movie that justifies the generational fandom. Maybe someday…….