Review: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)Review:
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)
Nicholas Driscoll
May 12th, 2019
Note: review may contain spoilers

When I first saw a preview to the movie version of Detective Pikachu (2019), I honestly thought it looked straight-up awful. Changing the lovably-cute Pikachu into a sarcastic, joke-tossing PG clone of Deadpool made me cringe, hard. It seemed like the standard Hollywood habit of crapforming popular properties into painfully hip garbage with creepy CGI and a mental vacuum where the intelligence should be. While many of my friends were remarking with optimism upon the initial advertisements, I was the whiner in the corner—and the recent Sonic trailers did NOT make me more confident.

I was not intending to go to the movie on its first day of release, but then I found myself stuck in Oita with a canceled flight and a full day away from home on my sleep-deprived shoulders, so when I realized Japan was getting Detective Pikachu a week in advance of the USA, I thought this would be a nice way to spend the morning and also give me another excuse to write a movie review for the site, which I haven’t done in quite a long time. (Actually getting to the movie theater was an absolute chore, though, since the mall in which the theater was ensconced was closed, and even when I finally found an elevator that would take me where I wanted to go, it wouldn’t stop on the movie theater floor! I had to stop on the floor ABOVE and then take ANOTHER elevator back down!)

But before we get into a critical evaluation, lets get into the story. Given thatDetective Pikachu is a detective story with a lot of twists and turns, I won’t go into great detail about what happens in the movie. Still, a brief set-up would be useful here, so let’s do it.

Tim is a young man just starting his career in a boring job. He has given up on his previous dreams as a child to become a Pokémon master, but he is also painfully lonely and distrustful of people around him. When his estranged detective father dies in a mysterious accident, Tim goes to Rhyme City to take care of his father’s things... but when Tim starts going through his father’s apartment, he quickly finds himself face to face with a talking Pikachu that only he can understand, as well as a bunch of violently wild Pokémon, a snooping (plus beautiful) young journalist and her Psyduck, as well as a barrel of other mysteries. Tim is immediately plunged into a multi-layered mystery as he reluctantly teams up with the wise-cracking Pikachu in an attempt to find out just what happened to his dad, as well as why the electric fur ball can speak—and soon discovers himself embroiled in danger and a dark conspiracy that could have huge consequences for the city.

Beginning with the characters, Justice Smith as Tim gives an adequate, awkward, bewildered performance which functions well enough to endear the schlub to his viewers, if not exactly to really make this reviewer fall in love with his character. As with almost all the characters in the movie, Smith plays Tim a smidge over the top, and his prickly awkward character sometimes annoys more than endears. Still, he is not bad by any means. Kathryn Newton plays the aforementioned spunky journalist, who quickly becomes Tim’s love interest. She even more than Smith chews scenery, and Lucy to me was irritating and pushy, and her quirks (meant to be charming) as often just made me dislike her more. The fact that she has a Psyduck, though, made up for a lot as the quacker is my personal favorite Pokémon. I wasn’t invested at all in the wet sparks that spluttered between the two of them.

Review: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

So far, I sound pretty negative, and that may have come somewhat from the fact that I had no breakfast before catching the first viewing. I did not really hate Lucy or Tim, but neither did I greatly like them.They were functional enough to get me to continue watching.

What about Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu? Well, he annoyed me, too. As I said before, it was a very hard sell for me to buy a smart-aleck Hollywoodized Pikachu in the trailers, and that held true in the movie as well. He always has something stupid/clever to say, and the gags were often only entertaining in the sense that they kept the script lively. I didn’t really want to hear Pikachu joking about peeing himself or about inviting someone up to his apartment (“I’m not that kind of Pokémon” he says).

And yet... even though I was not too fond of the fast-spat quips, Detective Pikachu (the character) is eminently watchable and likable. The CGI design for Pikachu looks great, and it is just fun watching him move. And while some of the quips may fall flat, and even though I didn’t like Tim much at first either, through their interactions, both characters become far more likable as the story goes on and we get a sense of their relationship. That is how these “buddy copy/unlikely partner” stories are supposed to operate, of course, with the dueling personalities bringing out the best in each other—and I have to say, it DOES work here as well, to the point that, despite my quibbles, by the end I actually found myself crying not once, but twice!

Part of the reason I was eventually drawn in MUST be because of the brilliantly-realized world of Rhyme City, where the Pokémon and the humans live and work together in peace. While it is sometimes weird seeing the intensely cute Pokémon designs interacting with straight up human beings (to the extent that it really reminds me of a Muppet movie with a higher budget at times), the Pokémon nevertheless look just real enough as to pull me in, and while I am not familiar with most of the newer Pokémon, I loved seeing so many of the generation one favorites making significant appearances. Plus, the human actors interact convincingly (usually) with their adorable co-stars, so that when we see dozens, hundreds of pocket monsters frolicking through the pseudo-Asian streets nonchalantly with their human companions, a magical world is created, especially for fans of the series.

And unlike so many adaptations of cartoons for the big screen—even despite the walking gag-machine of Pikapool—there is a strong sense here that the creators love the source material and understand the fans. The Pokémon all look recognizably like Pokémon—none of the weird pinhead lizard Goombas from the Super Mario Brosmovie. The Pokémon world is never really made fun of, but rather embraced as a place of wonder and adventure. And the Pokémon themselves often have interesting and fun ways of pushing the story forward, with a particular highlight for me being Mr. Mime. Lovers of giant monsters will also find some sequences immensely satisfying as well. There are even some great callbacks to the animated series.

Basically, the world is created with a lot of honor and a lot of heart, and it looks great and is easy to love. I think a lot of longtime fans will love the worldbuilding from this film.

What about the plot? Well, it has a lot of twists and turns anyway, and while being somewhat predictable at times, I was surprised often enough to be entertained. The story also has that same strong sense of heart and affection for its creatures and its characters as to be a pretty winning tale.

But... gosh. Over and over throughout the movie I often thought that basically nothing makes sense. The plot holes are abundant with this one, from the villain’s pretty bizarre plan to the reason why Pikachu can talk and more. Of course Pokémon has never been realistic in the first place, but some things are just completely unexplained and frankly just dumb. This wacky sense of plotting lends the story a dreamlike quality, and definitely made me feel like I was watching a live-action anime given that so many Japanese animated stories have a similar emphasis on cool scenes and heart over logical storytelling.

But it was that focus on the heart of the characters and the love for the property that won me over. I actually felt similar when I watched Avengers: Endgame (2019) because that movie, too, I think functions under a truly messy plot but overcomes (in my opinion) through sheer clever writing and such apparent love of the characters and property that I forgave the quibbles. Like with that film, despite the spotty plot, I felt very satisfied leaving the theater after seeing Detective Pikachu, and that’s more than I can say for most video game movies!

From the sense of wonder, to the delightful uses of the Pokémon themselves, to some very special effects and a heartwarming story, Detective Pikachu manages to overcome its often stupid plot and sometimes grating characters to create a sparkling, enjoyable family film. There are some really great music cues here and there too, for the fans. Look, this ain’t high art, but Detective Pikachu is way better than I expected it to be, so if you are a fan, when you go to the movie theater, you can confidently say, “Pikachu, I choose you!”