Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Review

It’s no wonder Detective Pikachu exists. Sooner or later something had to give, and a live-action, Hollywood-produced version of the popular Pokémon franchise was going to get made. That it largely stars a talking Pikachu, voiced by Deadpool, and takes place in a Who Framed Roger Rabbit-esque noir pocket dimension is the only real outlier. Although that is, admittedly, kind of a doozy.

The borderline (and in some cases not-so-borderline) terrifying creature designs shouldn’t be so cartoonish, yet so realistic. It’s not the kind of thing we “should” expect from the meticulously paved-over perfection of modern franchise movies — not in the era of Marvel and Star Wars. And I say that as someone who likes Marvel and Star Wars, if not the all-consuming mega-corporation that squeezes them into putty. Pokémon didn’t need to look like this. They’re Pokémon! People would have come to see them on the silver screen regardless.

That uncharacteristically noir-ish tone — and I suppose the fact that it works perfectly — is just about the only remarkable thing about Detective Pikachu. It has a fan film feel, with a Hollywood budget, and an around-for-the-rest-of-your-life-level brand. But the movie itself is utterly predictable, particularly if you’ve seen the trailers.

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Ryan Reynolds is the titular talking detective. And he’s a toned down version of the same inappropriately charming, laissez-faire hero Reynolds has played since at least 2004. It works, much like the rest of the movie, on the novelty that it doesn’t need to. The rosy-cheeked electric rodent shouldn’t swear or make jokes (however oblique) about having sex with a human being. Yet he does both in Detective Pikachu.

The amnesiac Pokémon teams up with Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) to solve the mystery of the latter character’s missing father. The mean streets motif doesn’t end with the lighting and one-liners, either. Our protagonists proceed to stumble upon an experimental drug trade, an illegal fighting ring, and government corruption. Of course there’s something even more sinister afoot, too.

That may sound like a lot, but at just 104 minutes Detective Pikachu doesn’t take a ton of time to explore any one element of its world. That’s a shame. The fact that so much care and attention clearly went into making these beasts look and feel like natural parts of a realistic world — where they fight fires and direct traffic and generally just hang out — left me hungry to explore how that society functions. It’s such a good rendering that I can’t help but wonder what lies beyond the city limits we’re largely trapped within.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu Review

Instead, though, this is mostly a fast-paced ride towards a dramatic conclusion between good guys and bad guys. That’s where the film loses me a bit. But that makes sense. Because it’s also where I believe the studio remembered this is ultimately a film for children.

Oh, sure! The Pokémon franchise has aged with its audience. The games’ protagonists look older with each console generation, for one. We probably wouldn’t even get this version of Detective Pikachu if the Pokémon Company didn’t want to target both children and their parents who grew up on the games, anime, collectible cards, etc. But at the end of the day, it’s mostly about those kids.

Which is why I think this otherwise wonderfully weird movie has such an awkwardly clean conclusion. There are precisely two twists (both of which I saw coming about 30 minutes into the movie). There’s a clear-cut bad guy with just enough gray in their morals to not be too clear-cut. Because unnecessarily sympathetic villains are the new cliché at this point, really. And of course there’s an extraneous hetero romance for Tim. Movies!

The push for simplicity just leads to some awkward moments, too — specifically in the dialogue. Detective Pikachu makes some very clear allusions to Pokémon: The First Movie, presumably to tug at and mess with oldies like me who watched that in theaters when they were nine. But the comparisons do Detective Pikachu no favors when they lead to deadly serious lines like “Now I see not all humans are bad,” and “We need to get them to a healer Pokémon.”

Pokemon Detective Pikachu Review

They’re just too on the nose — too manufactured for an audience that might not know what Pokémon are — to carry the emotions of their respective scenes. And whereas the anime could languish in melodrama to land its gut punches, Detective Pikachu is just too frenetic to replicate that 90s feel.

I still enjoyed it, though. I was able to accept the grit and mood lighting as the fascinating set dressing that they were, and the rest of the movie as it was: a totally acceptable family movie. I’ve said several times now that Detective Pikachu tries harder than it needs to, but maybe that’s not true. Maybe it parcels out the exact right ration of “weirdness” needed to feel relevant in our sea of just-good-enough content. Because, sure, plenty of people would eat up a completely humdrum Pokémon movie. But they’ll remember it a lot longer if it’s got just enough of a spark to stand apart.

At the same time, I’m afraid that Detective Pikachu is the future of mass market cinema. I’m afraid that, with the first wave of Disney-pressed Star Wars and Marvel movies almost behind us, we haven’t left sanded-down and “good enough is good enough” behind.” I’m afraid we’re just entering a new era, where quirkiness is, in actual fact, rationed out from movie to move, series to series — never pushing one step beyond the boundaries that movies like this are about to reset. At least not for another 15-20 years or so.

As always, the question becomes “What counts as quirky?” Who gets to decide what qualifies as weird, what is too far, and what is within that newly acceptable wiggle room? Detective Pikachu doesn’t star a buff, white action man (at least not visibly). But it is a chosen dude, with a woman mostly non-critical to the plot to fawn after. It is that exact story you saw when you were seven, eight, nine, and so on. Now new nine-year-olds will see it as well. And perhaps they will continue to not see anything else.