Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

by Andrew Parker

Although it never quite figures out exactly what audiences it’s trying to cater towards, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a reasonably entertaining bit of fun for fans of the beloved Nintendo property, both young and old. Torn between wanting to be a fan service, an intellectual property motivated blockbuster, and something a bit more edgy and ambitious, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a bit of a mess to behold, but at least it’s on point in all the ways that count the most. Pokémon fans will delight in seeing their favourite creatures interacting with humans in hyper-stylized real world environments, and the uninitiated will be a little bit lost as to what’s going on, but not to a point where things would get overly confusing. It straddles the line between a product made strictly for fans and a summer blockbuster with eyes on growing the brand nicely, but it’s a shame that this buddy cop comedy couldn’t pick a single tone and stick with it.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the story of Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith, a 21-year old, small town insurance appraiser who used to dream of training and fighting the titular creatures as a child, but has grown into a hardened, cynical adult. One day, Tim receives a phone call from the Ryme City Police Department, informing him that his estranged detective father has been killed in a car accident. Tim travels to the big city – a place where humans and Pokémon live and work side-by-side and the battling of creatures has been effectively outlawed – to get some closure and clean out his father’s old apartment. When he arrives, he’s ambushed by an ambitious junior television news reporter (Kathryn Newton), who insists that Tim’s father is either alive or that his death was a cover-up tied to something he was investigating. Although he wants nothing to do with whatever his father was into at first, Tim’s interests and suspicions are roused with the arrival of Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), his father’s wisecracking Pokémon partner, and the discovery of an inhalant that can turn seemingly docile creatures into feral monsters. After being exposed to the purple, gaseous substance, Tim can understand Pikachu’s language perfectly. Pikachu tells Tim that he’s suffering from amnesia, and that his father is likely still alive. Together they set out to solve a mystery that involves the discovery of an ancient Mew, secret medical testing facilities, and underground Pokémon fighting; all bearing ties to the father and son team (Bill Nighy and Chris Geere) who own the city’s largest media conglomerate.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu gets off to a fascinating enough start, following a brief scene that sets up the characters and reminds viewers what Pokémon are and how they normally work. Director Rob Letterman (who previously did a similar blend of live action and computer animation on the first Goosebumps film) depicts Ryme City as a bit of a dingy, futuristic place. Filming in a style that’s closer to a sci-fi noir than a family film, there are lots of grays, shadows, neon, and rising clouds of steam throughout Pokémon Detective Pikachu that offers a nice counterbalance to the property’s perceived candy coated image. The Pokémon are cute or menacing, depending on their abilities and tendencies, but the world they inhabit is light years away from the frantic animated series many of the franchise’s legion of fans grew up on. It’s a bold and unique move, but one that adds less and less once the laundry list of story points and easily deciphered clues start piling up.

Once the game is afoot, it’s hard to figure out who exactly director and co-writer Letterman and his team of three other writers are making Pokémon Detective Pikachu for. It starts off in a manner that suggests it’s catering to the older section of the franchise’s fan base; people whose taste in films might’ve changed in the decades since the characters first appeared, but they haven’t let their love of the previous games, shows, and movies slip. After that initially intriguing and somewhat dark set-up (which includes awkward comedic references to the likes of Home Alone and Seinfeld that add nothing except pointless nostalgia baiting and the cheapest of pops), Pokémon Detective Pikachu reverses course and courts the younger audience members, offering plenty of cute moments with Pikachu and other franchise favourites. But while the action gets cuter and a bit more cuddly, Reynold’s is tasked with adding edginess to the film, including far more risque entendres than I think most parents would like to hear from their already somewhat dubious choice of family entertainment. The there’s a brief turn into almost horror movie territory to put our heroes in danger, and then back to an impressive looking large scale set-piece to tie it all together.

The slapstick-y set-pieces and cuddly critters are there to satiate the young people. The bawdy humour and slam-bang finale that’s straight out of a superhero film are strictly for the thirteen to eighteen year old set. The mystery is there to appease the adults. Unfortunately, Letterman struggles to incorporate all of these elements into a tidy package that can please everyone at the same time. From scene to scene, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is eager to please, but it can’t please everyone equally or at the same time, making it occasionally frustrating, but never to a point where it stops being fun or engaging.

A big reason why Pokémon Detective Pikachu stumbles is the decision to make this mystery, when Pokémon mythology is already dense enough. The conspiracy Tim and Pikachu are trying to unravel is both complex and obvious. There are plenty of moving parts to keep track of, but whenever a new clue or lead arises for the heroes, it’s easy for anyone older than a toddler to piece together its significance in the larger story. There are few surprises throughout Pokémon Detective Pikachu, and everything will ultimately work out exactly how viewers will expect, but some credit should be given for making something that’s ostensibly an all ages film with a twisty plot that ultimately adds up at the end. It sounds like faint praise, but given the state of the modern Hollywood blockbuster, that’s no small accomplishment. It’s probably also the reason why Letterman struggles to maintain the overall crowd pleasing tone of Pokémon Detective Pikachu. There’s so much plot and circumstance that there’s little time to focus on the smaller character moments. The plot follows alongs its trajectory perfectly and purposefully, but the style, characters, and tone of Pokémon Detective Pikachu is never able to keep up with any degree of consistency.

Reynolds is his usual smart-ass self here, doing exactly what he was hired to do with the character, but also adding a nice amount of tenderness and sincerity to the character when called upon to dig a little deeper. However, nothing that Reynolds does with the character is as impressive as what the young Smith is able to do in the leading role. Boasting good chemistry with Reynold’s CGI gumshoe and Newton’s keener journalist, Smith brings a much needed sense of humanity and a touch of healthy skepticism to Pokémon Detective Pikachu. It’s a tough role to play for a young actor. Smith needs to know when Tim has to command the action around him and when his character has to take a backseat to his animated co-stars. Smith anchors the film confidently and intelligently, never overreacting to this fantastical world around him, but never selling short the wonderment of it all. Most leading performers twice Smith’s age have trouble navigating the ins and outs of such an effects driven blockbuster, but Pokémon Detective Pikachu suggests that Smith’s increasingly impressive and well rounded set of skills will lead to more interesting roles in the future.

As a piece of summer movie spectacle and fan service Pokémon Detective Pikachu is pretty decent and reasonably memorable popcorn fodder. As an overall movie that will stand the test of time and potential repeat viewings, it’s passable at best. If only the film’s artistic and narrative vision was able to operate on the same level as the film’s desire to sell products to the largest amount of consumers possible, Pokémon Detective Pikachu could’ve been a pleasant surprise. Fans will probably lap up the sight of watching their favourite fighting monsters playing in a real world sandbox, but for anyone else Pokémon Detective Pikachu will be slightly better than anticipated, at best.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu opens in theatres everywhere on Friday, May 10, 2019.

Check out the trailer for Pokémon Detective Pikachu:

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