Review: Pokemon Detective Pikachu

Tim and Pikachu try to play the typical good cop/bad cop routine during a witness interrogation in the video game adaptation, Pokemon Detective Pikachu.

“I’ve always found Pokemon to be at its best when it mimics reality.” This quote from my review of Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You! best describes my experience with Pokemon Detective Pikachu. Millennials who grew up with Pokemon as children are now twenty-somethings with careers, social lives and disposable income. Currently at the eighth generation of their game franchise, Pokemon has always been popular with children. Their biggest challenge is reigniting the fire in adult fans who have since lost interest in the series.

Looking to capitalize on the success of the 3DS’s Great Detective Pikachu, The Pokemon Company decided to allow Warner Bros. to produce a movie adaptation. The family-friendly detective noir revolves around a young man named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) who finds a talking, amnesiac Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds). As the two of them investigate the mysterious death of Tim’s estranged father, Harry Goodman, a large conspiracy unfolds involving a shady substance known as R, a Pokemon testing facility, and the ailing founder of Ryme City, Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy).

Strangely enough, a Hollywood adaptation was exactly what the movie needed to attract a Western audience. Hot off the heels of his Deadpool fame, Ryan Reynolds blends his cheeky comedic style with Pikachu’s signature cute appeal. Along with some much-needed emotional weight from Justice Smith, Detective Pikachu essentially functions as the Pokemon equivalent of a buddy cop comedy, with Tim as the straight man and Pikachu as the comic relief.

The dynamic is so effective that even Japanese audiences believe that the movie is more entertaining when dubbed in English!

It’s obvious that the movie is meant to elicit nostalgia for Pokemon’s most iconic moments. Tim and Pikachu aren’t so dissimilar to Ash and his Pikachu, the franchise’s staple duo. Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a plucky journalist with an anxious Psyduck, is reminiscent of fan-favourite Misty. And the involvement of Mewtwo (Rina Hoshino) probably evokes memories of the first Pokemon movie, Mewtwo Strikes Back.

And it comes so damn close to working. Detective Pikachu strives for excellence, but just narrowly fails at every opportunity. The end result is a movie that could have been great, but instead falls short of being passable. It’s a consistent cycle: the movie weaves a compelling mystery, brings in other factors to drive up the stakes, then proceeds to drop the ball on the big reveal.

Let’s take a look at an example within the film: Tim spends much of the first act coming to terms with his father’s death. But after finding his dad’s Pikachu, the little detective brings up an important question: if he’s really dead, then what happened to the body? After interrogating an informant, visiting a dingy battle arena and causing some major chaos, Lieutenant Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) tries to dissuade Tim from his investigation. When Tim protests, Yoshida reluctantly decides to show Tim surveillance footage of the car crash. In Yoshida’s words: “No one could’ve survived that crash. Not even your dad.”

But… that doesn’t explain anything. What happened to the body?

Every one of Detective Pikachu’s plot threads are plagued with an underwhelming conclusion. Tim’s backstory, Pikachu’s memories, Lucy’s career troubles, and even the big bad conspiracy ends up being a little disappointing. It’s akin to using up all of your Poke Balls to catch a legendary, but ultimately failing to catch it.

This probably sounds pretty bad, but it’s worse than it really is. The silver lining is in the setup, which is nothing short of spectacular. Detective Pikachu is easily the most emotionally resonant Pokemon movie in the franchise, and the best Pokemon movie since Mewtwo Strikes Back.

The movie could’ve succeeded in spite of its flaws however. But to discuss the ways in which Detective Pikachu could be salvaged, I must also address major spoilers within the plot. So consider this a SPOILER WARNING; stop reading at the end of the paragraph if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want me to ruin anything important about the story.

The biggest struggle to fixing a mystery story is the interdependence of its plot beats. A convoluted plot is just a natural feature of a good noir mystery, as the story only progresses through a series of plot twists and chance encounters. Likewise, Tim and Pikachu uncover new evidence and meet fresh faces on their investigation, most of which are found in a linear sequence of events. Tim is only confronted by Lieutenant Yoshida after he is found at an infamous Pokemon fight club, which he found after interrogating a witness, who he knew about through a tip from Lucy… and so on and so forth.

But certain moments, like emotional beats, are more crucial than others. Reckoning with Harry’s death, Tim tearfully reveals his troubled relationship with his father. Even if Tim’s backstory is a little light on motive and conflict (i.e. Tim doesn’t really have an explicit reason not to live in Ryme City with his dad), the scene is surprisingly heartfelt. At least, until Howard Clifford reveals that Harry is still alive in the very next scene.

Screenwriter’s tip: give your big reveals time to sink in. By undercutting its most dramatic moments as soon as they happen, Detective Pikachu lacks any immediate power. There are a lot of emotional scenes in the movie, but they aren’t as effective as they should be. The tears and cheers are always fleeting, almost as though the heart of the film is at war with itself.

And looking at the film’s core themes, I begin to understand why. There are two functional messages within Detective Pikachu. Firstly, communicating with Pokemon is all about expressing one’s feelings. The great irony of Tim’s situation is, though he can use words to speak with his Pikachu, he isn’t really communicating with him at all. Only by opening up and working together are they able to build a meaningful connection with each other.

Secondly, it is up to the children to correct the mistakes of their fathers. Tim’s distant relationship with his dad may have started because Harry moved to the city to immerse himself in detective work, but Tim must take the initiative to mend this broken bond. This is also mirrored in the antagonist, Howard; Howard’s son, Roger Clifford, vows to repair all the damage that his father had caused to the city.

But what contradicts these two themes is how the movie tries to allow for both to simultaneously flourish. At the end of the movie, it is revealed that Pikachu willingly gave Harry control of his body to save his life. Tim had been talking to his father the whole time, unwittingly bridging the emotional rift between them. The real Pikachu, meanwhile, simply acts as a host for Harry, only regaining autonomy after everything had been resolved.

So what is the movie really trying to say? Is Detective Pikachu about connecting with your Pokemon? Or connecting with your family? By trying to have its cake and eat it too, Detective Pikachu undermines its message twice over. Despite the emphasis on developing a spiritual connection with your Pokemon, Tim isn’t really bonding with his Pokemon at all—he’s bonding with his dad. And because Pikachu’s true identity is only revealed at the end, Harry isn’t really trying to make amends to Tim as his father.

If Detective Pikachu really wanted to be a father-son story, then it should have ended with Harry (in Pikachu’s body) giving up the solution to a mystery in order to be with Tim. In other words, a story’s resolution should be the antithesis to its initial conflict.

In short, Detective Pikachu is a massively flawed experience. Beyond the slapdash structure of the plot, there are other aspects of the movie that feel utterly out-of-place. The opening scene where Tim attempts to catch a Cubone sticks out awkwardly, having little tangible relation to the rest of the story. The romantic implications between Tim and Lucy also feel artificial, and it’s hard to see the two as anything other than friends.

But there’s a spark within Detective Pikachu that clicks with me. I don’t really know how to describe it; I just feel it in my jellies. Perhaps it’s the result of a cast with a genuine passion for Pokemon, even if it is just a silly video game movie. Or perhaps it’s just my rose-colored nostalgia glasses preventing me from seeing this movie as the half-baked detective mystery it really is.

Whatever it is, Detective Pikachu has captured my heart, despite its gaping story issues. And considering Pokemon’s cinematic track record these past two decades, I see it as nothing less than a hard-fought victory.

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Either the most honest movie critic in the universe, or the least intelligent philosopher.

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Posted in Film and TV Reviews

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