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Film Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu Searches For Its Best Identity

on May 07, 2019, 2:45pm

The Pitch: Tim (Justice Smith) once wanted to train Pokémon, but ended up choosing an insurance salesman’s path instead. But when he receives word that his police officer father was killed in a car accident, he leaves his pastoral everyday town for Ryme City, a futuristic utopia where humans and Pokémon live and work in harmony. While they were estranged (at best) in life, Tim soon finds himself handling some unfinished business when he comes across his father’s “Pokémon partner”, a Pikachu struck with amnesia who talks just like Ryan Reynolds. How does Tim know that he talks like Ryan Reynolds? Because the two, somehow, can understand each other. Soon it’s a shy young man and a caffeine-addicted Pikachu against the world, as they reluctantly set out to learn what happened to Tim’s dad, why the Pikachu can’t remember anything, and why Pokémon all over Ryme City seem to be going mad or missing for no reason.

TM28 For Gold: For a long time, the very existence of Pokémon Detective Pikachu felt like a stunt. While there have been numerous theatrically-released Pokémon movies at this point (and more overseas still), those animated outings always felt of a piece with the long-running animated series based on the hit games. Detective Pikachu, by contrast, is at once the live-action Pokémon movie fans have wanted for years, and an adaptation of one of the odder spin-off games in the series. It also features a Pikachu that talks like Deadpool.

To that first point, in its best moments Detective Pikachu demonstrates a keen understanding of what’s made the franchise such an enduring and now multi-generational touchstone. To be a kid playing through a Pokémon game is to play out a version of discovery in which all adults are friendly except for the villainous ones, you always know exactly who the villainous ones are, and at the age of 10 you’re ready to leave home and live in a world that’s dangerous enough to be fun, but never enough to well and truly harm you. It’s an open-world adventure, made safe for kids. Put more simply: Pokémon never die, they just faint. And when it allows its characters to simply marvel at the wonder of wild and mysterious creatures around every corner, in the center of the shot and the periphery alike, Detective Pikachu has no shortage of charm to burn.

Those moments are a bit too few and far between, as the movie’s exhausting kid-flick pacing tends to slam through them. But they’re at least frequent enough to make the movie ultimately worthwhile, even as the continuous leaps between the seriousness and neon lighting of neo-noir, the humor of a Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-esque caper, and the snark of modern family fare tend to leave the movie’s general tone muddy after a while.

It Hurt Itself In Its Confusion: Like so many first installments of the mega-franchise era, Detective Pikachu missteps most when it attempts to draw in as many people as possible at once, whether through pee jokes or mismatched concepts. The consistently manic energy of the movie works best when it’s matching the hyperkinetic cadence and movement of the animated series, whether in the motion-heavy battles or when scrappy reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) arrives on the scene to chase scoops and deliver the exact kind of bouncy, cartoonish energy that fits Detective Pikachu best. Smith likewise seems to perk up most in their scenes together; elsewhere, he’s assigned the thankless task of playing the straight man for both a side character and a CGI companion.

When it’s whipping between shots in order to mask and/or limit the boundaries of the film’s plentiful animation, that energy becomes a great deal less appealing. Aside from Pikachu itself, which looks outstanding and is trusted with plentiful close-ups and screen time, Detective Pikachu appears to regularly struggle with how many Pokémon it’s capable of showing off at one time, even as it stretches those boundaries in just about every shot. In trying to cram the movie with Pokémon while also limiting their exposure, the movie leaves the audience in the position of spending more time attempting to catalogue quick glimpses of characters than actually paying attention to the movie.

It’s difficult to avoid such behavior when Detective Pikachu seems to phase in and out of interest in its own plot. The rapport between Reynolds and Smith is sweet enough, and the real appeal here does arguably lie in wandering through a world full of Pokémon, but the movie’s noir conceit takes up a great deal of screen time for something to which it only commits in spurts. It’s a hook custom-built to draw in those young-ish parents who grew up on the series the first time around, but what they’ll end up bringing their kids to is a characteristically loud modern-day family movie, a lot of the time.

The Verdict: As a family movie, Detective Pikachu is enjoyable enough. But if the Pokémon games drew players into the world through immersion, it’s then strange that the first major live-action adaptation frequently races through those moments of immersion in order to get to the next sequence of middling buddy-cop banter. Even the fast-paced cartoon was able to build out an entire ecosystem as it went along.

With that said, Detective Pikachu is still endearing enough to remain appealing, and will undoubtedly spawn a film franchise that will hopefully further expand the universe’s sandbox in the future. The animations are consistently outstanding even as they’re too often hidden in shadows, and manage to lend a wealth of distinctive textures to the diverse array of creatures. Ryme City itself is memorable enough to make one hope that a future movie will explore it again. And for a movie that’s about a talking Pikachu in a detective hat with the voice of Ryan Reynolds, Pokémon Detective Pikachu actually works for the most part, which feels like a pleasant surprise in and of itself.

Where’s It Playing? Everywhere, in hopes of teaching a new generation to separate their parents from their money, starting May 10th. Gotta catch those tickets!

Trailer:

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