Review: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Detective Pikachu takes perhaps the world’s most financially successful media franchise, known for quirky creatures battling one another, and turns it into a rather mundane mystery. With the help of a talking Pikachu voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith) searches for his missing father. They journey through several colorful places, plenty of Pokemon popping in for brief yet effective cameos.

This is a movie defined by its fan-service – and, surprisingly enough, I think that indulgence benefits the film’s form. So many shots are designed around the idea of leaving enough room for background events. It’s an excuse to fit in more Pokemon than necessary for the narrative, but it lends the film a dynamic visual energy. At its peak, Detective Pikachu is a living, breathing world full of these beautiful creatures.

The designs themselves have been a central focus leading up to the film’s release, and while they were a bit hard to digest at first, I think they work surprisingly well in motion. Pikachu is absolutely adorable, and the visual effects team really captures the minor nuances of the species involved. I loved little bits like watching a group of Pancham crawl over their annoyed Pangoro parent, or a Treecko clinging to the glass of a receptionist’s desk. There’s so much life in these computer-generated creatures.

Because so much effort is put into showing off the Pokemon, Detective Pikachu manages to avoid a lot of the technical hang-ups I have with the modern Hollywood style. While it does fall back on the usual shot-reverse shot style, there’s usually flavor to each angle, each shot framed to incorporate some background Pokemon. It’s not doing anything awe-inspiring, but for a blockbuster-type film that could have easily fallen back on the popularity of its franchise, it’s a visually pleasing experience.

Unfortunately, the story is rather bland. This could be fine, as I feel most people were going into this just to see Pokemon brought to life, but it’s one of those cases where the story actively detracts from the selling point. Detective Pikachu falters about halfway through with a sequence that finds Tim and Pikachu with reporter Lucy and her Psyduck. There just aren’t as many Pokemon during these scenes, and with a flat story, this moment really drags.

The interactions between Detective Pikachu and Tim are largely effective throughout the film, but every other human character is laughable. Lucy’s opening dialogue is atrocious, and the final act goes completely off the rails (at least in regards to the narrative). This movie is loaded with fun sequences that never quite come together – I don’t know why the man behind Shark Tale and Gulliver’s Travels was put in charge of what should be an important entry in one of the world’s biggest franchises.

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Detective Pikachu is heavily tied to your investment in the franchise. While I might be coming off rather harshly, as someone who has played multiple Pokemon video games over the past month due to the hype caused by the mere existence of this film, I really did enjoy myself. I just know they could have done better.

The main thing I found myself thinking after watching the movie is how much I would have loved to just have more scenes to quietly watch Pokemon go about their daily activities. Minimize the plot – in the end, this is a film where the most compelling elements are stuck in the background. Bring those to the foreground; have Pokemon actually battle each other as a central focus. Even a pseudo-nature documentary could potentially work, but don’t bog the experience down with a subpar detective story.

I put Detective Pikachu in the same camp I put Alita: Battle Angel. This is a movie that has all the right elements for a strong visual spectacle, but it gets caught up in a story it doesn’t seem all that interested in telling well. Like Alita, I think there’s more good than bad, but it still requires sifting through the bad. Despite these flaws, Detective Pikachu still has enough going for it that any fan should walk away happy, but with a longing for a sequel that cuts to the chase.

3 Stars Out of 5

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