I am not a fan of Pokemon. It came along when I was too old to get interested in it. With each new iteration I became more and more distanced from the universe. So, of course, my reaction to Rob Letterman’s Pokemon Detective Pikachu should be taken with a grain of salt.
Pokemon Detective Pikachu is based on a video game that in and of itself was based on a character from a popular cartoon show created to sell toys. Which is fine with me, I grew up in the eighties, every cartoon was created to sell toys. Much like those cartoons though, whether or not you played with the toys or religiously watched the cartoon will have a massive impact on your enjoyment of the movie it has inspired.
Watching Detective Pikachu, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would enjoy it more if I were a fan of Pokemon. From the reaction of the audience around me, the answer is probably a resounding yes. For myself, however, I drifted in and out of tedium.
Letterman’s Detective Pikachu suffers from a lack of story. The script—written by Letterman, Derek Connolly, Benji Samit, and Dan Hernandez—does little to play with its own premise. At its core, Letterman and his crew of writers are telling a detective story.
Tim (Justice Smith) gets a letter saying his father, Harry, a policeman from Ryme City, has died. Ryme City is a city unlike any other, for it is the only city where Pokemon and humans live together in harmony. Tim bumps into ace reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton). Up until this point, Detective Pikachu has been a movie without inspiration.
But with Lucy’s appearance and the story picking up, it becomes clear Letterman and his writers are paying homage to the pulp adventure and detective dime novels of the thirties and forties. Lucy herself feels like a character ripped out of Detective Magazine. Energetic, confident, and always looking for a story, she’s the type of character that Detective Pikachu desperately needs.
It doesn’t help that although the film wishes to pay homage to those stories, it has no real sense of direction or pacing. When the titular Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) does show up, the story turns to screwball antics. But the antics never really feel that over the top or wacky.
Pikachu is Harry’s old Pokemon partner. Together the two must work together to find out what happened to Harry. More urgent though is Tim’s abilities to understand Pikachu. Pokemon speak a variety of different languages but none of them understood by Tim.
It is a miracle that is easily forgotten within five minutes of it’s discovery and shoved aside to find out what happened to Harry’s dead father. If you’re wondering about Tim’s mother, she died before the movie started. The tentacles of Disney can truly be felt everywhere these days.
Justice Smith is incredibly charismatic. His Tim seems to be devoid of any real characteristic aside from, “I must know what happened to my father.” Still, the chemistry between him and Pikachu is so good you’d never even notice that they don’t seem to be really saying anything.
Kathryn Newton’s Lucy lights up the screen as she is the one character, aside from Pikachu, who seems to have any kind of momentum. Tim has to be dragged and chased before finally giving in. Lucy is chomping at the bit and even works at a news station.
Thankfully Letterman and his squad of writers keep her close, letting a hint of a relationship blossom without ever relegating Lucy to a damsel in distress. Not to mention that though they never kiss or even hint at romance, it’s clear Lucy still has value to Tim.
A woman who never seems to be rescued, is competent, and ends the movie without dating the main male character? Look, I know Detective Pikachu has flaws but, twenty-first century or not, this detail deserves a standing ovation. Marvel, DC, and Disney should take notes. They won’t, but they should.
All of this is a crying shame because the Pokemon themselves look gorgeous and richly textured. Shot on actual film, the filmmakers, used practical effects whenever possible. The result is a gorgeous looking movie with the best special effects I’ve seen in ages. The Marvel movies do a good job blowing things up but Detective Pikachu created a plethora of creatures who seem as alive and real as the actual humans.
Shot by John Mathieson, the world around Tim and Pikachu is delightful to explore. Though I never understood the rules of the world or who had what powers, I couldn’t help but be just a little tickled at what was going on in the corners of the screen. These things never made the movie zip along but they went a long way to making the world feel whole and lived in.
Nevertheless, the rowing crew of writers forgot to imbue any real reason for things to happen. Much happens throughout Detective Pikachu, and Letterman and Mathias dazzle with some really great action set pieces, but none of it matters. While the world feels lived in, much like Marvel movies, there are no real consequences.
Take a scene with Tim, Pikachu, Lucy, and her Pokemon, Psyduck. While escaping a lab where they have discovered an important clue to the mystery of Tim’s father’s death, the ground begins to shake. It doesn’t just shake, it begins to erupt and move. Mathieson’s camera never overreacts, allowing us to keep a clear bead on the character’s movements. The scene is riveting and inventive—the kids in my audience were on the edges of their seats.
It turns out the ground they were on wasn’t earth but the backs of giant Pokemon. Afterward, the Pokemon settle back down and the ground settles. As they do, the camera pulls back and nothing seems to have really changed. This despite trees falling and characters jumping across gaping ravines that appeared from nowhere not long before. When it is all said and done the landscape is unaffected, indeed the Pokemon didn’t do anything but get up and sit back down.
As a result of all this something happens that I will not reveal. But the incident itself, and the tension built from the scene, is sapped from the pointlessness of the action scene. Action for the sake of action can get you pretty far but when you hook your drama onto said action it begins to wheeze and sputter.
It gives me no joy to tell you I almost nodded off while watching Detective Pikachu. As jaw-dropping as the special effects are they feel wasted. Ryan Reynolds is an outsized talent who is oftentimes more likable than the movies he chooses to be in. With Pikachu, the ball club of writers has saddled him with a character that could have been played by anybody.
Reynolds does his best, but aside from a few funny lines here and there, he has precious little to work with. I found myself shocked at how pointless some of his lines were. Often, the line was a mere rehash of a line someone else had just said. Watching Detective Pikachu, I found the characters talking for the sake of talking and making sounds but not actually saying anything.
A pity considering moments such as when Tim and Pikachu come across Mr. Mime on the docks. Far and away one of the best scenes of the movie, it manages to both pay homage, be funny, move the story forward, and force the characters to be inventive. Had Detective Pikachu been as inventive and deliriously absurd as the Mr. Mime scene, I would be sitting here with a rictus grin on my face.
Then again, I can’t imagine anyone going to see Detective Pikachu who wasn’t a fan—critics aside. So, maybe that’s the key: if you’re not a fan, don’t even bother.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures (Worldwide)