Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Review

Unlike most fans of the franchise, I didn’t come to Pokémon through the original games. Rather, I bought Pokémon Ruby with my meager allowance when I was 10 years old. As soon as I clicked that cartridge into my GameBoy Advance and flicked the power switch on, I was transported into another world. A fantasy about traveling the world with monster pals came alive. Every couple of years, a new game would renew this feeling. It wasn’t until I saw Detective Pikachu that I realized just how limited this fantasy was in the games.

Within the games, your adventure always plays out the same. You’re a youngster on the cusp of adulthood. To prove that you’re ready to grow up, you choose a “starter” Pokémon to accompany you on your adventures. This creature can grow and evolve through battles, which you engage in with friends and strangers alike. Once you’re strong enough, you challenge gym leaders who award you with badges to showcase your success. By the end of the game, you’ve become the Pokémon champion with a small legion of creatures to your name.

Ninety percent of Pokémon games are spent in turn-based battles, but what kept me engaged with the games was what existed in the margins. I’d see a couple of Pokémon hanging around in towns, taking up simple jobs. I’d read about the odd and twisted thing Pokémon do in their Pokédex entries (Drifloon in particular is kind of terrifying). My imagination filled in these margins with a world defined by coexistence between monsters and humans. The games repeatedly told me that society revolved around the relationships between people an Pokémon, but outside of the battles, this fact wasn’t fully presented in the games. The scope was too limited. Until Detective Pikachu.

Detective Pikachu follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) who, unlike his friends, doesn’t have a partner Pokémon. This is the first bit of juicy information the movie feeds you. We know you’re supposed to get a Pokémon at a certain age, but in the games, that’s a given. We don’t see the social pressures that keep this custom so deeply ingrained. So when Tim’s friend has to trick him into trying to capture a Pokémon, we immediately know something is off with Tim. Why wouldn’t he want a Pokémon?

Tim is comfortable in his alienation; however, this changes when his estranged father dies. Forced to deal with the aftermath, Tim heads to Ryme City to sort through his father’s belongings. That moment when Tim first enters Ryme City is breathtaking. everywhere I looked, I saw hints at how humans and Pokémon live in unity in this city.

A Machamp works as a traffic cop, directing streams of traffic around a napping Snorlax. Pidgey sit upon power lines, while Rattata scurry through back alleys. Squirtle trail after firefighters and Charmander help street vendors cook food. I’ve been playing Pokémon games since I was 10, but this world has never felt as alive as it does in Detective Pikachu. That’s because the scope of the film is unprecedented; even minor details like posters, billboards, and signs all hint at ways Pokémon and humans come together. Perhaps it’s easy to feel this way, coming in as a fan. The movie is packed with subtle Easter eggs that you’ll only recognize if you’ve played the games.

Tim bumps into Pikachu, an electric mouse who is able to speak words that only Tim can understand. Pikachu informs Tim that he was his father’s partner Pokémon, and that he believes a mystery is afoot. Tim’s dad isn’t dead, Pikachu claims. So, while Tim hates the idea of teaming up with a Pokémon, he reluctantly pairs up with Pikachu to close the case.

Their dynamic is fraught, but in a friendly way. Tim just wants to find out what happened and Pikachu is a means to an end. Pikachu, on the other hand, is a spunky fellow who can best be described as Ryan Reynolds, the actor. Pikachu never feels like its own character; it’s essentially a vector for a more PG-rated Ryan Reynolds, incessant quips and all. For me, this helped keep the worst parts of the movie (more on that in a bit) somewhat bearable.

Detective Pikachu is very much a children’s film. The plot is simplistic and straightforward. There were very few twists that actually surprised me. Additionally, some of the acting and writing is…not great. While Justice Smith is alright in some scenes, his performance for the first half of the movie portrays Tim as a mopey wet blanket. He was utterly boring until he got over his hangups with Pokémon. Kathryn Newton plays a young journalist, and the scene where she is introduced is horrendous. It’s like the introduction of a femme fatale in a noir film made for someone’s senior project. Clichés upon clichés.

However, I found all of these quibbles easy to look past, because Detective Pikachu‘s strength isn’t in its plot, story, or acting. It’s a children’s movie where there are good guys, bad guys, and cute critters. If you’ve seen any trailer for this movie, you can probably guess the entire narrative arc of the film. And yet, this will probably not impact your enjoyment of the movie.

Wrap-Up

The thing that hooked me into this movie was its depictions of Pokémon. At first, I found the designs uncanny in their attempts at realism (Mr. Mime is still a nightmare). But upon seeing them in motion, I was completely won over. Cute Pokémon are a given; Pikachu is the poster boy of the movie, after all. But to see a Charizard spread its massive wings, or to watch a Gengar hurl a Shadow Ball at a Blastoise, or to behold a Ditto shapeshifting is pure awe. This awe can be explosive in the heat of battle. More often than not, it’s quiet and mundane, like having to strap your Pikachu into a baby’s car seat. The biggest compliment I can give Detective Pikachu is that it didn’t take long for me to want to live in it.

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