Movie Review: “Pokémon Detective Pikachu”

Computer generated special effects in this day and age are amazing things.  What once may have seemed stiff and awkward now flows smoothly. The ability for the real and the imaginary to interact perfectly with one another is a delight, to be sure, but it is an expectation as well.

Consequently, a film like “Detective Pikachu” (or “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” as the full title goes) needs to do more than simply showing cut and cuddly (or weird and scary) Pokémon interacting seamlessly with humans.  The Rob Letterman directed film needs to satisfy on a narrative level rather than trust on its visuals to astound and amaze.

This is not necessarily an easy task because, let’s face it, while we fully expect the CGI to be wonderful, that doesn’t simply make it so – it still takes an immense amount of work and all that work isn’t enough to make the movie a success on its own.  It’s just part of a grander design.

In “Detective Pikachu,” that design features the tale of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) heading off to Rime City, a place where humans and Pokémon live in harmony, to clear out his father’s belongs after the man’s untimely demise. Naturally for such a film, things are not as clear cut as Tim’s father, a detective, simply dying in the line of duty. There is a mystery unfolding and Tim finds himself wrapped up in it alongside his father’s Pokémon partner, a Pikachu.  This particular Pikachu has amnesia and, more interestingly, can be understood by Tim (this does not happen with Pokémon).

As the film establishes, Rime City is unusual in the world because it elevates these Pokémon creatures to equal with humans.  While clearly that is laudable, there is something undeniably unsettling about the fact that this is the only place in the world where that happens. We even see Tim attempt to capture a Pokémon earlier in the film, and while we may understand that the Pokémon has to choose to be captured, that is still the way it’s all established – humans capture Pokémon. There is nothing equal about that and if the notion of Rime City is that Pokémon are equal to humans (we even see them do jobs humans do), isn’t the movie suggesting on some level that everywhere else in the world Pokémon are less than?

There may be a reason within Pokémon lure why this is not the case, but there is nothing whatsoever to explain it in “Detective Pikachu.”  The result of this is the sense that this society has deep and terrible problems and that the film is not merely ignoring them but rather doesn’t even grasp the inequalities it has established.

The problem goes further because humans are given names, but Pokémon are only known by their type.  This doesn’t register with anyone in the film, including in Rime City, where Pokémon are, supposedly, treated as equals.

Rather than approaching any sort of discussion about these problems, the audience is instead treated to Ryan Reynolds voicing Tim’s Dad’s Pikachu (this nomenclature being necessary because many Pikachu exist in this world and are nameless if not identified by their totally-equal-in-every-way partners).  Reynolds musters up every ounce of considerable charm he possesses and we are left with something like a Deadpool-lite personality.  This is, of course, a children’s film and so any naughty jokes are geared to go over their head, but the Deadpool snark is present.

Reynolds and Smith make the whole thing just about work through sheer force of charisma, but the story remains uninteresting throughout, the other characters are just window dressing (which is a shame considering that the talent present includes Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe alongside Suki Waterhouse, Chris Geere, and Kathryn Newton). One of the best moments in the film is eerily reminiscent of Tim Burton’s “Batman” and the film’s plot twists feel as though they exist as much to cause gasps amongst the audience as they do in order to exist as a part of a cohesive, interesting, narrative.

On the whole, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is, like the Pokémon at the center of the film, cute and cuddly enough to get away with all the disturbing bits that come alongside it.  Anyone who stops and considers exactly what is being said, however, will walk away more than a little disturbed.

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photo credit:  Warner Bros.

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