Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (United States/Japan, 2019)

May 09, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu Poster

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu isn’t a movie. It’s a cog in a multibillion-dollar media empire, a soulless feature-length example of product placement at its most blatant. The so-called “film” never bothers to tell a story worth telling or developing characters worth caring about. It populates the screen with a brightly colored gallery of grotesques that make the inhabitants of Star Wars’ infamous cantina seem normal by comparison and uses a brief “news clip” to function as world-building. The storyline doesn’t make a lot of sense but it’s not intended to be considered beyond the obvious. Detective Pikachu is made exclusively for children and its primary purpose isn’t to be watched but to encourage its young viewers to populate birthday and Christmas wish lists with Pokemon items: cards, stuffed animals, computer games, apps, etc.

To what degree is it fair to eviscerate a film for accomplishing what it sets out to do? In Detective Pikachu’s case, it’s to provide a forceful reminder to its target audience (kids) that the brand is alive, well, and all sorts of merchandise can currently be purchased. I have no doubt that most movie-goers under age 13 (or thereabouts) will enjoy this movie despite the paucity of its narrative. After all, it offers the same kind of visual diversions one can find in second-rate animated movies. There’s amazing diversity in the Pokemon population, so the computer animators get an opportunity to fill the screen with an array of creatures that vary from nauseatingly cute to rejects from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual.

The story transpires in a parallel world where Pokemon co-exist with humans. Many people have “Pokemon partners” – a mutually beneficial relationship where the creature functions as something between a spouse and a pet. 21-year old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a “loner” – the term used to describe someone who lives without Pokemon companionship. One day, he receives a phone call asking him to come to Ryme City. His father, a police detective there, has been killed. He arrives and discovers that Ryme City deserves its exotic reputation – the only place on the planet where human beings and Pokemon live in complete harmony. It’s the brainchild of visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), who runs the place alongside his strait-laced and unfriendly son, Roger (Chris Geere).

Shortly after arriving in Ryme, Tim is accosted by pushy news intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who assures him there’s some sort of “big story” related to his father’s death. After brushing her aside, he seeks refuge inside his father’s apartment – only to discover that he’s not alone. Also there is Detective Pikachu (voice of Ryan Reynolds), his father’s Pokemon, who has lost his memory. Pikachu believes one thing, however – Tim’s dad may be missing but he isn’t dead. This results in a mismatched buddy combo who launch an investigation into what’s really going on.

Ryan Reynolds’ Deadpool-inspired (appropriated toned-down for a PG audience) Pikachu reminded me of Bill Murray’s Garfield: weirdly amusing at times but generally out-of-place. Although the lack of chemistry between Tim and Pikachu is perhaps understandable – Justice Smith isn’t the most emotive of performers and the Pokemon is comprised of 1’s and 0’s – it nevertheless hurts the film. Buddy movies often live and die based on how strongly the participants relate to one another. Here, the interaction is as lifeless as the “case” they investigate.

The best thing that can be asserted about Detective Pikachu is that it gives the computer animators an opportunity to let their imaginations run free. The number and variety of strange and wonderful Pokemon is truly astonishing. It would be interesting to freeze frame one of the street scenes in Ryme and count them. That’s hardly a good reason to make a movie, however, and less of one to watch it. Most kids will probably enjoy what Detective Pikachu is selling (emphasis on selling) but parents consigned to watch it with their offspring will be less enthused.

Pokemon: Detective Pikachu (United States/Japan, 2019)

Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Howard Clifford, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere
Home Release Date: 2019-08-06
Screenplay: Dan Hernandez & Beji Samit and Rob Letterman and Derek Connolly
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Henry Jackman
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:44
U.S. Release Date: 2019-05-10
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1