In recent years it feels like Hollywood is cashing in exclusively on established properties, and one of the many things that people complain about when voicing this problem is that they’re money grabs, rehashing stuff that we already know and love and repackaging it to us. For the most part, however, that hasn’t been true for me. I wasn’t raised on comics, and so the Marvel characters are more or less new to me. I’ve never seen a King Kong or a Godzilla. I haven’t watched the new Jurassic Parks. I’ve only ever seen the fourth Indiana Jones. I only saw Wrath of Khan after Star Trek: Into Darkness. Even Star Wars, which is easily the closest to my heart, was a medium I knew mostly through books. Pokemon, then, is probably the easiest way to remind me of my childhood, and Detective Pikachu thankfully has just a bunch of Pokemon in it.
Which should go without saying, except it doesn’t. Watching the new Sonic trailer (yeah, I know, there’s a lot to be upset about) I was struck by the insane decision to make it an Eggman origin story. Why? If I were tasked with making a Sonic movie I would have a very sober talk with my writers and say “look, I know franchise launches are all the rage right now but realistically we’re probably only gonna get to make one Sonic movie so put literally anything and everything you love about Sonic into it.” Detective Pikachu feels like it was made by people who love Pokémon, and tried to wedge as many of them into the film as possible. We get Pikachu, Squirtle, Bulbasaur, and Charizard, yeah, but also Aipoms and Loudreds and Greninja.
Okay, so plot: Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is an ex-trainer who gave up Pokémon after some trauma and now lacks ambition. He kicks around the suburbs until learning his father Harry, a police officer, was killed alongside his Pokémon partner in a car crash on the outskirts of Ryme City. Tim goes to Ryme City and discovers Harry’s partner, Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) is not only alive but can talk, but only Tim can understand him. Joined by intrepid (intern) reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) Tim must track down his father (who Pikachu believes is still alive) and solve the case he started.
The story is all fine. There’s a few emotional beats that feel perfunctory, though the filmmakers seem to think they shouldn’t – it makes sense that a movie aimed at kids and featuring Pokémon doesn’t want to linger on heavy topics but the movie definitely engages with them, but does so weakly. Most of the characters are too thinly sketched and as a result feeling anything during the potentially emotional beats is difficult, since we don’t really know the characters going through them. We know Detective Pikachu pushes people away because he tells us twice, and because it’s been blithely told to us twice it means little when he does it- it’d be more effective to show it just once rather than say it twice and rob the actual action of its power. The plot mechanisms work better – the mystery is complex and goofy and has multiple twists. It’s consistently engaging, and in a lot of ways I wish the movie tried even less to punch the emotions – when it leans into its outrageous plot points is when it most shines. Kathryn Newton is a great example – I don’t know what they told her to get the performance they did out of her, but it’s just killer. I imagine someone told her they were making a noir featuring Pokemon and as a result she could do whatever the hell she wanted. Her self-introduction (something along the lines of: “I’m a HARD hitting journalist with a NOSE for the BIG SCOOP”) is one of the hands down best parts of the movie. It’s telling that she doesn’t really get any serious emotional beats – it allows her to go wild and have fun with the role, and to engage with the plot instead of having to deal with weird wedged in emotional moments, and it means she’s the best performance and character of the lot.
The other place the movie shines is, as stated above, the sheer number of Pokemon in it. Pokemon is a huge world with (according to a quick google search) a whopping 807 unique creature designs. For the most part, Pokemon look awesome, and the movie knows it, cramming as many of them as they can into every shot. Ryme City feels alive, and populated, as promised, with humans and Pokemon alike. As I said up top Pokemon is absolutely my best nostalgia button, so I mostly just wanted to see a bunch of bizarro CGI Pokemon, and the movie delivered over and over again, drawing on the huge wealth the franchise has already generated and putting them in a cool new setting. The plot works even if you don’t know Pokemon, but it’s most fun if you do.
I give Detective Pikachu 7 Bill Nighy’s saying “The Ancient Mew” out of 10 cups of coffee.
- Pokemon is also obviously a world that makes no sense if you poke at it even a little. How quickly would our ecological systems collapse if everyone everywhere could easily capture any wild animal, and did it constantly?
- Frank pointed out that it’s pretty bold for a Pokemon movie to roundly condemn the act of Pokemon battles, but this movie does just that.
- Lots of fun shout-outs for the “fans”. I spotted the Squirtle Squad. Also is the final sequence a reference to Poke Floats? Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu sings the original theme song, but also they reference the fact that Mewtwo was captured in the Kanto region, leading to the feeling that Ash & friends exist in this world… which means there’s a TV that mirrors their lives that people in-universe watch, I guess?
- The Ditto reveal is the other absolutely hilarious moment, and just really well played.
- Liza said she wished the movie was more stylized. I thought it had a decent amount of style, all told, and don’t recall Pokemon being particularly stylish, but as always I agree in part that I wish all blockbusters had a bit more fun/audacity, but that’s wishing for them to be something they aren’t.