Review: 'Pokémon Detective Pikachu" Is All Fluff (And That's Mostly A Compliment)
Look, I’ll be honest. I’m finding it hard to be objective about this movie. Not because I’m a Pokémon fanatic (I’m not — I can barely tell my Charmanders from Charizards), but because there is a fatal flaw in my critical thinking, and that flaw is CUTE STUFF. I cry soft, gentle tears for the entire duration of WALL-E, no matter how many times I see it, because that tiny trash compactor hits me square in my CUTE STUFF soft spot. My body is physically unable to process how painfully cute that freakin’ robot it. Or like, sometimes when I see a particularly cute puppy, or even baby, I just want to bite them. Not hard — just a wee nibble! — and obviously I don’t do it (I’m not a monster), but I think about it. And similarly, when I tell you that my face hurt from grinning like an idiot during all of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, and that those grins were frequently punctuated by me going “AWWWW!” and flapping my hand around with barely contained glee, please understand that this is my flaw talking. It’s not because this movie is moving, or surprising, or really anything more than the textbook definition of “just OK.”
But Pikachu himself? SO INCREDIBLY, MIND-MELTINGLY ADORABLE. Like, I still don’t know a lot about Pokémon but now I get why you “gotta catch ‘em all.” TO HUG THEM. Right? Is… is that what you’re supposed to do with them? Whatever, I’d train them to cuddle.
The good news is, if you’re a newb to this massive critter-ball fighting franchise, you can still enjoy this movie — and if you’re a longtime fan, there are all kinds of inside nods you’ll be able to explain to your friends. The choice to base the film on an actual Pokémon game (also called “Detective Pikachu,” natch) turns out to be the second smartest decision here. Because that game, and this movie, are essentially stand-alone narrative adventures that are spin-offs of the central franchise. So while the film may mention Poké Balls and trainers and feature a dazzling array of popular and recognizable Pokémons, it’s not all about that battle lifestyle. Instead, it’s about the wider world where Pokémon are just another natural feature of the wild — and an experimental utopian city where humans and Pokémon actually co-exist in harmony, founded by an idealistic billionaire named Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy). Imagine Blade Runner as written by Gene Roddenberry: A awkward combination of noir sensibilities with a shiny optimistic sheen. It’s there that a disillusioned young man named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) arrives to wrap up his father’s affairs, only to get embroiled in his father’s mysterious final case — a case still being investigated by his father’s amnesiac coffee-guzzling Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds). There’s a new Poké-drug on the streets — a gas called “R” that sets Pokémon on a rampage — and Tim’s father Harry was close to uncovering the source when he was seemingly killed in the line of duty. If Tim can just help Pikachu follow the threads of Harry’s investigation, maybe the detective can recover his memories — and Tim can get closure.
So, yes, there’s a mystery that carries the plot from A to B, but the investigative noir-ish trappings collapse under even the slightest scrutiny. And that’s fine! It’s a kids movie, after all. The fact that the story falls somewhere on the spectrum between “mediocre” and “utter nonsense” isn’t really a hindrance whatsoever, because it makes just enough sense to keep you going — and, crucially, there’s enough ADORABLE PIKACHU to keep you distracted along the way. And that’s where we hit on the actual smartest decision made in this endeavor: Hiring Ryan Reynolds, and investing in an animation team to bring his sparky little creation to glorious life. Anyone still bemoaning the fact that Danny DeVito isn’t playing the part… I mean, I can sympathize, but you’re wrong. Reynolds deftly balances the breezy blink-and-you’ll-miss-it humor you’d expect from him, with the brimming heart the character needs. There’s still room for another adult-oriented DeVito-Pikachu movie, but this ain’t that movie. Nor is this some sort of Deadpool-lite. If anything, you’ll be disappointed if you walked in expected this to be the sort of wild & wacky buddy comedy promised by the trailers. Reynolds brings the charm, but he’s still operating fully within the kiddie-tainment lane.
Which, again, would be disappointing if I wasn’t so completely sold by HOW CUTE PIKACHU IS. And I’m going to keep hammering on this point, because it’s very very important (to me, specifically). The animation, combined with Reynolds vocal talents, are what allow this movie to make the leap from “just OK” to “guiltily enjoyable”. It helps that the godawful Sonic The Hedgehog trailer played before the movie, as an example of the sort of nostalgia-gone-wrong hell we COULD have been stuck with for 2 hours. But instead of a monstrosity ripped from our nightmares, we get pure unbridled joy! All of the Pokémon designs are great, treading the line between faithful to the franchise and believable as things that might actually be interacting with humans in a real world. They’re daffy and cartoony but in a fun way — not in a way that pulls you out of the proceedings (read: no deeply unsettling teeth). I imagine for fans there’ll be pleasure in seeing (quickly Googles species names) Bulbasaurs and Jigglypuffs and Squirtles brought to life, in all their oddly specific glory. Heck, even I got the Magikarp joke! But whatever care was taken in translating the other Pokémons to the big screen was quadrupled when it came to animating Detective Pikachu.
Y’all… HIS EYES GLISTEN. His fur is defined. From his expressive little mouth to his stumpy little arms to his lightning bolt tail, waving around like a fleshy flag, he’s not just adorable — he’s believable! He’s viscerally real in a way that I just want to squeeeeeeeeze. He’s everything I want in a friend. In fact, I’d sell all my friends AND ALL THE REST OF YOU to hug him.
So if you’re like me, and you can happily just spend a few hours sighing and squeeing about cute and snarky imaginary fuzzballs, then you won’t hate this movie. You’ll probably even watch it again when it hits cable! If you have a kid to entertain, this will keep you both engaged. And if you leave the movie and start dissecting the glaring plot holes (including one that sort of ruins the heartwarming final twist), don’t be too disappointed. Just remember your happy place:
Header Image Source: Warner Bros.
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