‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ (2019) Review: A First-Rate Visual Look With A Second-Rate Script

By Steve Pulaski

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a film with a first-rate visual look — like an amalgam between Monsters, Inc. and neo-noir — and a second-rate script, on top of many other questionable decisions. From the start, Ryan Reynolds’ voice is an odd fit for Pikachu, our lead character is as generic as they come, and the camaraderie kicks in long before we have a chance to connect with anyone. In disappointments like this, we must look at the positives: at least Psyduck is adorable.

It’s been 19 years since a Pokémon film hit theaters. Given the resurgence of the franchise thanks to the popular Pokémon GO mobile game, which showed the litany of little creatures make their leap to the real-world thanks to augmented reality, I’m surprised it took so long. I should preface my thoughts on this new film by saying I was only ever tangentially interested with the games and original TV show. I played some of the Game Boy games to assert my hipness to my friends, but the most experience I’ve had with the show was watching its end credits on Cartoon Network early in the morning as I awaited for Ed, Edd n Eddy, an infinitely better program, to follow suit. Despite this, Pokémon has always had a universally appealing quality. Some people love it for the intricacies of the various characters. Other enjoy it because it’s so “out there,” in a sense, that you can simply appreciate the multitude of continuations and spin-offs for their cuteness and individual storylines. Pokémon is, in some ways, a crowd-pleasing property. But why did I feel so empty and unenthused while watching the latest film adaptation?

We’ll get to that. The film opens with Jack (Karan Soni) trying to convince his friend Tim (Justice Smith) to get back into the hobby of Pokémon training by capturing a quirky little cretin out in the middle of a field (hell if I remember the thing’s name). Tim fails to catch it, as it escapes the confines of the recognizable pokéball, and soon after, he gets word that his father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. Tim then travels to Ryme City, a place where Pokémon live freely among humans as opposed to being captured and trained. While sifting through his father’s office, Tim is stunned by purple gas and then swarmed by rabid Pokémon, only to be aided by the beloved Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). Tim is the only person who can understand Pikachu, for every other human simply hears the adorable little yellow fuzzball say “Pika! Pika!”

Tim leans on Pikachu who, despite having his memory wiped, is convinced that Tim’s father is still alive. They team up with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), an unpaid intern at a local news station with an affinity for Pokémon. Her job is reduced to writing clickbait articles about such trivial topics such as “The Top 10 Cutest Pokémon;” “which is stupid,” she tells Tim, “they’re all cute!” The two, with the help of billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), who founded Ryme City, uncover an experiment to make Pokémon larger and more destructive, as seen by the all-powerful Mewtwo (Rina Hostino and Kotaro Watanabe), in hopes of manipulating the purpose of Pokémon for evil. Not that the present use for Pokémon is all too cheery for the creatures, but hey, it’s inarguably better than using them as pawns for malicious intent, I’m sure.

Tip of the cap to cinematographer John Mathieson and the legion of (under-appreciated) special effects artists and animators whose efforts seamlessly merged Pokémon characters and towering cityscapes. The film is not only gorgeous, but the characters appear lifelike and textured. Pikachu’s soft fur and Psyduck’s amphibian skin are curated in a way that recalls the kind of attention paid to the smallest visual details in Toy Story, such as the nuances where Woody’s face would reflect in Buzz’s helmet. The colors of the characters protrude before a shadowy, inky backdrop of a noir-like city in a handsomely decorated way. If only the surrounding movie played to the strengths of the gorgeous visuals.

Justice Smith never emerges as the kind of memorable hero, or even sturdy protagonist, we long to root for as audience members. He’s a bland archetype of insecurity and grief, whose potential for complexities essentially vanish the second he comes in contact with Pikachu. It’s not so much Smith’s acting chops that are suspect as it is the quartet of writers’, who, through rewrites and on-set tweaks, likely sucked all the charisma out of Tim to the point where even his name isn’t memorable. However, this isn’t the predictable case of the cuter character usurping the human one. Pikachu feels like a missed opportunity as well. I didn’t buy into Ryan Reynolds voicing another self-referential quote machine of an action figure, and his voice and personality don’t mesh with Pikachu whatsoever. The writing doesn’t allow for Pikachu to be much else besides preciously clumsy with a dash of light humor. It’s another case of the actor/voice actor being too much of the character, and I fear Reynolds has cemented himself as forever Deadpool, or is still within a window where all or most of the characters he plays will appear derivative from his acting opus.

There’s also just a lot of clutter and mayhem packed into Pokémon Detective Pikachu that is liable to wear you down. From this emerges one crafty, adventurous scene involving a forest chase with Tim, Lucy, Pikachu, and Psyduck at the center, where the forest appears to be closing in and crushing the four from a 90 degree angle. It’s exactly the kind of claustrophobic, reality-bending subversion you’d anticipate in a film as ostensibly off-kilter as this one, but it’s the only scene of its kind that takes full-on creative liberty. The rest, again, feels derived from superior, modern superhero films.

Lastly, who exactly was Pokémon Detective Pikachu made for? Its story feels both bloated and thin, and isn’t likely to amuse young children for an extended period of time, yet the humor and scope feel too childish for adults. As stated, I’m aware of Pokémon‘s cross-generational appeal, but the film’s cuteness only goes so far for children and its humor is skin-deep for their guardians. There are far too few laughs here, and with a handful of underwhelming human characters and only marginally fun creatures, the novelty starts and stops at the concept, which in the end, doesn’t take full advantage of the mystery either. There’s too much clutter, but in a peculiar way, not enough substance.

Grade: C-