A film review by Craig J. Koban May 20, 2019


2019, PG-13, 105 mins


Ryan Reynolds as Detective Pikachu (voice)  /  Justice Smith as Tim Goodman  /  Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens  /  Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford  /  Ken Watanabe as Lieutenant Hide Yoshida  /  Chris Geere as Roger Clifford  /  Suki Waterhouse as Ms. Norman  /  Rita Ora as Dr. Ann Laurent

Directed by Rob Letterman  /  Written by Letterman, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Derek Connolly




To quote its full title, POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU isn't a film made for me.  

I don't know much about Pokemon.  I'm not a fan of the Pokemon phenomenon.  I don't try to hunt and/or collect Pokemon (either virtually or literally).  And maybe I don't simply get Pokemon.  

But I do know that POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU isn't so much a movie as it is a near two hour product placement commercial.  To be absolutely fair, it does contain superb production design, thankless visual effects, and a few moments of genuine heart and merriment, but it mostly feels hollow and disposable, kind of like a toy commercial spread out to two hours designed to peddle a corporation's property to the masses.  Fans of Pokemon will adore it, I assume, whereas the rest of us Pokemon philistines will exit the cinemas after screening it with a big shrug of the shoulders. 

Paradoxically, this film comes off as both imaginatively conceived, yet wholly derivative.  Its core premise has been done and done infinitely better before in films like the iconic WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, which concerned a fantasy world where human characters interacted with cartoon personas.  POKEMON dryly appropriates that Robert Zemeckis film's core premise - mix flesh and blood heroes with zany animated ones and place them all within a mystery laced storyline - but this film doesn't contain the same startling sense of freshness of approach or pioneering intrepidness.  Yes, the marrying of live action and CGI VFX here is pretty thankless and wonderfully done, but the central storyline (the product of four writers) doesn't contain the same level of gee-whiz wonder as its million dollar imagery.  Even the central murder mystery story arc contain within is not altogether compelling, which essentially means that all we are left with is a spiffy looking, but shallow minded spectacle and eye candy.



POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU's opening sections hold some promise of intrigue and creativity.  We're quickly introduced to a parallel world that involves - as mentioned - humans living in relative peaceful harmony with their Pokemon "partners," the latter of which mostly come off as pets, but with many human characteristics and quirks despite their outlandish appearances.  21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) has returned to the grand Pokemon inhabited Ryme City after his police officer father has tragically died on the line of duty under some decidedly fishy circumstances.  It should be noted now that Ryme City is the only city on the planet that facilitates the cohabitation of people and Pokemon, for reasons never fully explained.  This city was the grand idea of rich visionary Howard Clifford (an utterly wasted Bill Nighy), who oversaw the creation of this near utopian metropolis. 

Just as Tim is dealing with grief and trying to also come to grips with years of what he considers parental abandonment from his father, along comes a hyperactive, yet ambitious journalist-to-be in Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who believes that something was very, very afoul about Tim's dad's death and believes that there's a big story to be blown wide open about it.  Tim quickly dismisses her ramblings of foul play, but his life changes forever when he comes in contact with his father's Pokemon partner, named, yes, Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), who looks like a little yellow cat with a lightning bolt shaped tail.  To Tim's utter astonishment, he's able to somehow understand Pikachu (it's been already established that Pokemon don't speak English or any other human language), who believes that his former BBF in Tim's father is not dead, but mysteriously missing.  Tim begins to see that the bread crumb-like clues left point towards this possibility, which leads to him teaming up with Pikachu to hunt down his father and find out what has happened to him. 

POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU has one big thing going for it and that's the creature design and overall world building of Ryme City.  Director Rob Letterman and his art direction team have spared no expense at letting their childlike imaginations run fully wild cramming nearly every inch of their fictional city with Pokemon critters of an astounding variety, size, shape and temperament.  These creatures can be best described as mostly cute and cuddly, although some of them have some monstrous temperments, but their wondrously exotic and colorful facades make the film engaging on a level of its artifice.  Ryme City itself becomes a secondary character in its own right, which comes off like a futuristic version of BLADE RUNNER's L.A., but much more bright, vibrant, neon hued, and way, way less dystopian.  After all, this is a city populated by...big toys. 

And, God love 'em, Ryan Reynolds gives a completely committed and fairly winning voice performance as the titular character, which mostly involves a lot of more PG-friendly Deadpool-ian quips and verbal zingers.  It could be easily said that Reynolds is just in paycheck grabbing wisecracking mode, which is hardly a stretch for the actor, but he at least makes the mostly bland and uninspired storytelling here feel more alive and rich as a result of his verbal presence.  Yet, this takes me to a rather unfortunate and disappointing element in POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU, which is a genuine lack of fascinating human characters amidst its rich menagerie of Pokemon richness.  Goodman and Stevens are game and decent actors, to be sure, but they exist solely for the purposes of reacting to the ever increasing strangeness of the Pokemon world beyond them.  They're essentially plot devices propelling the story forward as opposed to being legitimately interesting characters that we latch on to and grow to admire. 

The film's tone is sort of a jumbled mess as well.  POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU want to be a zany, joke-a-minute fantasy farce while, at the same time, dabble into some dramatically solemn themes about family, death, and the nature of parental abandonment, which seems to conflict with one another throughout.  The film sometimes is too serious for its own good and, at other times, too frenzied and crazy to be taken seriously.  And the central mystery angle that propels the whole enterprise forward seems to take some bizarre and convoluted detours, some of which don't make much sense.  There's a rich and compelling story to be told about Tim trying to find a father that he and everyone around him pronounced as dead, but POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU doesn't place much faith plotting this out on a satisfying trajectory.  There's an awful lot going on in this film, but it paradoxically feels underwritten and lacking in cohesive development. 

This Pokemon world is so wonderfully outlandish and diverse, and DETECTIVE PIKACHU looks marvelous, but its million dollar visuals pathetically mask its ten cent scripting.  And let's be frank: This movie exists to sell toys.  Lots of toys...and to appease it most ferociously devoted fanbase.  I've been told that POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU is based on video game of the same name, but to call this a "video game adaptation" is odd, seeing as it's essentially propping up the entirety of the Pokemon's vast decades-long empire of games, trading cards, anime shows, magna, and so forth up on the screen for the easy consumption and adulation of its adorning die hard devotees.  The longer POKEMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU progressed the less innovative sass it had, mostly because its initial eye popping imagery gave way to overstuffed and frenetic CGI heavy mayhem and nonsense.  This film is both over and underwhelming in equal dosages, which elevates it above forgettable mediocrity.  And it will sell more Pokemon merchandise, that much is clear, to keep the business empire chugging.  And the motive of the makers here is no mystery requiring Pikachu's shrewd deductive logic to solve. 

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