Review - Pokémon Detective Pikachu (Spoiler free)
The Pokémon franchise has been going for over two decades, with fans all collectively crying out for one thing over and over. A live action Pokémon Film. So you can imagine the collective ‘Pikachuuuuuuuu’s of excitement when it was announced that we’d be getting one with Ryan Reynolds in the starring role.
However excitement turned to confusion when the name ‘Detective Pikachu’ was released and it transpired that the film fans have waited so long for was actually a mystery film.
Based on the game released in 2018, ‘Detective Pikachu’ follows the story of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) who travels to Ryme City to find his missing father. Instead he finds his Dad's Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), soon discovering that he’s able to understand him. The team pair up to not only find the missing father, but also unravel the secret behind a gas that turns Pokémon into savage beasts, later known as Pokémon R.
If your primary reason for seeing this film is to see Pokémon in a real world setting (without playing Pokémon Go), then this film delivers everything you want and more. Detective Pikachu’s greatest strength is the world building involved with integrating Pokémon into a variety of settings as well as the neon majesty that is Ryme city. This is achieved both in the scenarios we meet several Pokémon, but also the CGI designs. While the designs when seen out of context appear jarring, in the film they blend in spectacularly. "Bouffalant" appearing at the beginning on a ranch is a prime example of how glorious this CGI can look.
The film also does a great job at blending in several elements of the franchise in natural ways to fully load the nostalgia. Hearing the original Pokémon theme casually used as advertising for a company (as well as Ryan Reynold’s beautiful short rendition) are just satisfying. The visual design team incorporated a lot of excellent nods to the full Pokémon world such as posters advertising tournaments in Sinnoh (the location of the Diamond and Pearl games), references to Mewtwo’s origins in Kanto even to the point that people are debating whether this film is actually in continuity with the main anime series. There are many references throughout that will simply make the hot blooded Pokémon nerd smile, a lot.
The major missed potential, that leave many fans lacking, would be the battles. Part of Ryme city’s lore is that battling has been outlawed to prioritise the relationships between humans and Pokémon. This results in very few actual battles. Most of the action sees Pokémon attacking the main cast which reduces a lot of the actual spectacle that people have wanted for years. Not even the final confrontation against Mewtwo works well as a battle for both practical and narrative based reasons.
The audience are presented with a glimpse of promise when we visit an underground battle ring. Seeing Blastoise vs. Gengar in the underground arena was a competitive highlight (but even this is incredibly brief).
The cast for ‘Detective Pikachu’ is one that I can only describe as highly impressive. Justice Smith gave a performance that maintained a strong balance between emotional vulnerability and awkward charm. A lot of his strongest scenes are conveyed purely through body language and it’s a completely gripping performance throughout. His dynamic with Pikachu is also incredibly fun, but when it comes to later parts of the film, that dynamic becomes confused. Are they colleagues? Are they friends? Family? It doesn’t stay consistent.
This problem affects Ryan Reynolds too, especially by the end of the film. I did enjoy the performance from Reynolds. After all, it’s very hard not to after his Deadpool take over. He was funny, with well written dialogue, and just immensely cute. Once you get over the disappointment of not getting Danny Devito and not hearing Reynolds giving a detective noir style voice, it’s solid.
We also get strong performances from Kathryn Newton, Rita Ora (seriously?) and Bill Nighy (SERIOUSLY?) who are fun to watch but do bare the question why on earth they are there? Their biggest flaw in the end is just how they are written. Their introductions are rushed and they come off as awkward until they are given the time needed to flesh out their characters, for better or for worse.
Obviously as this is a detective film, it’s important to talk about the story. First and foremost, even though it's adapted directly from a game, the actual larger scheme and who is responsible are drastically different, so feel free to play the game and not be spoiled (it’s a good game). The team want to find Harry Goodman and stop the bad guys. The problem is that instead of balancing the two mysteries against each other, the film jumps from one revelation to another. At times the two stories feel like completely different films. The mystery element is just poorly handled.
I think most people can work out the result of the missing person investigation, but the Pokémon R plotline attempts to throw a red herring bad guy at the audience without giving enough actual clues towards the real villain. We get one clever clue but nothing else. What this results in is a third act that comes out of nowhere and has what I will unhappily call the most ludicrous scheme I have ever seen. It relies on Pokémon R doing something that is never established that it can do, on other powers that are never stated to be there, and a severe lack of motivation for even wanting to do this scheme. It actually gets difficult to watch the last third of the film with any sense of emotional investment.
While it is true that it’s meant to be a children’s film, children aren’t that dumb. They can piece together things if you give them the chance. It’s certainly no excuse to give them a non-mystery film.
'Detective Pikachu' is a complicated one to discuss. People are still confused as to why this was the film that we got but I completely understand the reasoning behind it. Trying to make a live action film based on the dense stories of the main series games would leave a lot of elements lacking, so I’m fine with the first exploration being into a smaller story in size and scope to show that Pokémon can thrive in a live action world. If that was their purest intent, they succeeded.
As a Pokémon film, it was a beautiful and natural way to expose us to the idea of Pokémon in real life, and that type of world exploration was invigorating to see. As a mystery film, it fell flat, only allowing us to enjoy character interactions but nothing intellectually stimulating. Depending on the type of film you want will completely dictate your reaction to this film. My hope is that this can be used as a springboard to go deeper into the world of Pokémon in live action films because for what I want in a Pokémon film, this was not exactly that.