Pokémon: Detective Pikachu
A convoluted plot and constant exposition dumb down this live action Pokemon film to a level that even kids will find silly.
May 09, 2019
Remember Who Framed Roger Rabbit? 1988's mismatched buddy comedy about a washed-up private eye (Bob Hoskins) and an animated rabbit was (and remains) a remarkable piece of cinema: groundbreaking in its special effects, hilarious in its comedy and note-perfect as a noir pastiche. It set the standard for movies that seamlessly entertained both adults and children alike, almost as if there were two separate audio tracks where only those over a certain age could hear the gags about sex, drugs and violence.
Watching the trailers for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, it was hard not to get excited that we might be on the verge of another Roger Rabbit-esque classic. Sumptuous special effects, a murky detective story, mismatched buddies and, as the pièce de résistance, master of deadpan Ryan Reynolds providing the voice of the eponymous Pikachu. Whether as a newcomer or a die-hard fan of the Pokémon franchise (which began as a video game and collectable-card craze), it seemed there was ample room for everyone to get beside the wise-cracking chubby rodent with the eyes of an angel and the mouth of a pirate.
Alas, no. A convoluted plot, countless first-draft jokes and constant exposition dumb down the film to a level that even kids will find silly. It's not without its merits, but the overwhelming feeling is one of frustration at what might have been had they either embraced the world of Pokémon in earnest, or gone all-in on the detective story. Instead, it's a bit of everything and not a whole lot of anything. And to think, it all started so well.
Detective Pikachu kicks off dramatically with a secret laboratory meltdown of sorts, prompting a prisoner escape, a car chase and a spectacular crash. The action then pivots to a delightful sequence involving a young man in a field, Tim (Justice Smith), attempting to catch and bond with a grumpy little Pokémon named Cubone. If the dynamics of human/Pokémon relations mean nothing to you, however, you'll quickly find yourself floundering from this point onwards, as the film all but glances over the details of what, for the franchise, were its core principles, rules and objectives.
In fact, the film almost dismisses them entirely, setting its main story in Ryme City where the traditional sport of Pokémon combat is outlawed and humans and Pokémon instead live, work and play alongside each other as equals. Tim is there to finalise the affairs of his late father, Harry, whose death from the crash at the beginning of the film raises numerous unanswered questions. It's here where he also encounters Pikachu, and, to their mutual surprise, they discover they can communicate with each other. Pikachu has amnesia, remembering nothing except that he was Harry's former partner, and that he's convinced the death was fabricated. The stage is hence set for some classic sleuthing — but instead of going down that road, or even just following the story of the video game from which the film is based, Detective Pikachu simply jumps from one half-explored plotline to the next in a narrative that feels increasingly disjointed and rushed.
It's such a shame, too, because in addition to the stunning visuals, Detective Pikachu boasts a pretty solid cast. Alongside Reynolds and Smith, there's Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe and Kathryn Newton, all of whom receive either far too little screen time, or not nearly enough character development. Being a kids movie doesn't mean its leads have to be basic or cliched (consider, for example, the complexities of some of Pixar's leading characters). Yet here only Pikachu and Smith get anything even close to resembling a back-story. From the audible gasps at various stages of the film, it's clear there's some joyous content for the true Pokémon fans out there, but for the uninitiated Detective Pikachu doesn't offer nearly enough to sink your teeth into.
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