Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)


This movie probably shouldn’t exist, and yet, here we are. What is more, Pokémon Detective Pikachu has been mounting the only box office resistance to total domination by the Marvel Cinematic Universe in particular and Disney in general. The film is as cynical a product of franchise extension as they come, but considering that at least 75 percent of big budget movies are sequels or reboots makes it almost a moot point. At least there’s some genuine character to Pokémon Detective Pikachu, which is saying something considering how generic the film could’ve been.

That’s not to say that Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a seamless film. There’s a weak mystery, a forced romantic subplot, and a lack of imagination when it comes to the narrative resolution, but there’s also rich worldbuilding and an oddball sense of humour that isn’t normal in big-budget family-friendly films. Most significantly, there’s the clear sense of the film knowing its audience. In a corporate world that’s overrun with cynical, false nostalgia for the past, it’s nice to see a corporate product that earnestly targets young millennials and doesn’t insult their fondness for their childhood.

The film follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a 21-year-old insurance adjustor who’s stuck in a rut, personally and professionally. After the death of his detective father, Tim heads to Ryme City to settle his father’s affairs and ends up partnering with his father’s Pikachu to uncover the mystery behind his father’s death. The wrinkle here is that we learn that Tim can understand what Pikachu is saying and Pikachu can understand Tim, which isn’t normal in the world of Pokémon—no one else can understand what Pikachu is saying, for instance, as several interactions following Tim and Pikachu’s meeting make clear. Furthermore, Pikachu just so happens to wear a deerstalker like Sherlock Holmes and sound like Ryan Reynolds, with all the meta humour and hyperactive jokes that come with it.

Admittedly, this is a bizarre concept, but strangely, this central gambit is among the film’s strong points. It lets Reynolds riff as the caffeine-addicted, mystery-solving Pikachu, like a G-rated version of his schtick in Deadpool, but without the faux-cynicism or superficial subversion of the Deadpool films. Instead, the humour is more about the absurdities of the Pokémon world, which is fleshed out in a way that other films ought to emulate. An early scene where Tim and Pikachu interrogate a Mr. Mime, a humanoid Pokémon that only communicates through miming, is an example of the film’s effective humour, poking fun at the absurdity of the character while also revelling in the logical interactions that would occur in a world where Pokémon and humans live side-by-side.

In fact, fleshing out this world is a strength of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, as is the decision not to explain the rules of the world through direct exposition. Instead, the film follows in the footsteps of Robert A. Heinlein and other great science-fiction authors and uses indirect exposition to flesh out the dimensions of this world. For instance, characters don’t take time to explain what certain Pokémon do, let alone the very concept of Pokémon in the first place. And although Tim isn’t a Pokémon trainer like other characters in the film, he is familiar with Pokémon, so the film doesn’t present the protagonist as an audience surrogate, introducing the world to him at the same time it introduces it to the audience. Instead, the film moves at a rapid pace and has the characters interact with various Pokémon and people in a number of different  social circles, including an underground Pokémon battle ring, the world of television journalism, and even the highest levels of a major corporation, to introduce the rules of the world indirectly. We learn by watching, which is surprisingly elegant for this type of film.

However, I have to admit that this approach would likely have been avoided if the filmmakers weren’t confident in the target audience’s familiarity with Pokémon. The film understands its millennial audience, so it doesn’t waste time explaining the world. Instead, it peppers in easter eggs or jokes for the established fanbase, much as most franchises do nowadays, but without wasting narrative time on it. Unlike in the Marvel films, these easter eggs are not digressions from the main narrative, nor are they teases of what’s to come; they’re simply inclusions that fans will appreciate, but that less aware viewers won’t be distracted be.

For example, Tim’s love interest, the television reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), has a partner Psyduck that’s central to an escape sequence midway through the film; the scene relies on Psyduck seeming ineffectual up until that point, only to surprise the characters with its robust powers. Anyone who grew up watching Pokémon the Series will recognize that Psyduck was often at the butt end of jokes in the series, making the film Psyduck’s perpetual confusion and apparent uselessness even funnier, as it repeats beloved tropes from the series. However, the actual narrative impact of Psyduck’s actions aren’t dependent on familiarity with the show, nor does Psyduck’s presence distract from the main storyline or play as sequel bait. It’s simply layered with additional meaning for the initiated.

To be clear, this approach is still fan service, and a viewer who isn’t fond of the Pokémon franchise is unlikely to be as forgiving of the film’s faults as I am. For instance, the film’s conclusion is rushed, foregoing much of the inventiveness of early moments in the film. But a lacklustre climax is par for the course for most big-budget movies, and for a movie as dependent on humour and atmosphere as Pokémon Detective Pikachu, action was never going to be the highlight anyway. At least the special effects are excellent, complementing the strong world-building and surprisingly funny humour.

Hollywood is full of franchises that cater solely to pre-established fanbases. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is not the best of these franchise films, but it’s hardly the worst. And considering that the concept of a live-action Pokémon film featuring a talking detective Pikachu sounds insane at best, that the film is simply as enjoyable as it is should count as a great success.

6 out of 10

Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019, USA/Japan)

Directed by Rob Letterman; written by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, and Derek Connolly, based on a story by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, and Nicole Perlman, based on the video game; starring Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy.