‘Detective Pikachu’ Review: You Don’t Gotta Catch It
If Monsters Inc. took place inside Blade Runner, it might look a little like Detective Pikachu. The film is set in a high-tech, neon-lit, hypercolorful world populated by magical creatures called Pokémon. The production and character design, inspired by decades of Pokémon cards, video games, and cartoons, are gorgeous. You will not find a more visually striking children’s movie this year.
You will almost certainly find a more entertaining one, though. Detective Pikachu is an incredible setting surrounding a snooze of a story. The mystery, characters, and comedy (or mostly the lack of comedy) are all forgettable. Still, the imaginative city they exist in is never not fun to look at.
The metropolis is called Ryme City, designed by an inventor named Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy, a true galaxy-brain casting choice). Ryme City was built as an place where man and Pokémon could live together in harmony, in contrast to these species’ typical relationship, which is more like something out of the world of underground dogfighting, with Pokémon “trainers” capturing these critters in the wild and then pitting them against each other in combat.
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) arrives in Ryme City looking for answers. His estranged father has died, supposedly in a car crash, but something about the incident doesn’t add up. Following the clues, Tim meets his dad’s Pikachu. Normally, Pokémon can’t speak, except to say their own name. So the fact that Tim understands Pikachu — his voice is provided by Ryan Reynolds, at least when he’s not squeaking “Pika! Pika!” — is an even bigger puzzle to solve.
Pikachu himself is an unbelievable special effect. He looks as cute and cuddly as a Pokémon cartoon and uncannily real all at once. His fur gets matted when he’s wet, and dingy when he’s been rolling around in dirt. He’s so convincingly enmeshed in the stuff happening around him onscreen that audiences may not even appreciate just how difficult the illusion must have been to pull off. If you see Detective Pikachu, it’s worth really watching him; how Pikachu moves through the space and interacts with stuff onscreen. It’s amazing. (Detective Pikachu was shot by cinematographer John Mathieson, a frequent collaborator of Ridley Scott’s who was the director of photography on Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, along with the bleakly handsome Logan.)
Frustratingly, the imagination evident in every beautiful Ryme City background is rarely equaled in the foreground. With very little sleuthing, Tim and Pikachu discover the crash that killed the former’s father was no accident, and that it’s connected to a case the dad, a policeman, was investigating involving a rash of misbehaving Pokémon. The notion of a fuzzy little detective who shoots electricity out of his butt partnering up with this sad young man to explore a utopian city where grumpy magic dogs work as cops sounds like a truly surreal experience. In practice, the mismatched partners’ bland quest — credited to five different credited writers, including Derek Connolly and director Rob Letterman — feels like the neutered cut of the much weirder thing it was designed to be.
Ryan Reynolds playing Pikachu as a kind of fast-talking, PG-rated Deadpool never quite lands, although he develops a sweet rapport with Justice Smith as Tim. The inherent absurdity of casting serious actors like Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe (playing Tim’s dad’s boss at the RCPD) is good for a chuckle when they first show up, but it only takes you so far without solid material to back it up. Then again, it’s tough for any human to measure up to Mr. Mime, a Pokémon who does exactly what his name implies, and who endures a cute cop/bad cop interrogation in Detective Pikachu’s best scene.
The obvious comparison for Detective Pikachu is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, another noir-spoofing comedy about a human and a cartoon character who awkwardly team up to take down a big conspiracy that threatens the very fabric of their society. Both movies work well as eye candy stuffed with cutting-edge special effects. But Roger Rabbit also boasted a satisfying mystery, not to mention some very sharp satire and social commentary about southern California and the movie business. Beneath the predictable story, Detective Pikachu isn’t about much, and if you need Wikipedia to explain who Mewtwo is, most of the jokes will go right over your head. The whole thing is a bit too childish for adults, and a bit too convoluted for kids. It absolutely deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects however, even if the subject matter makes me think it’s unlikely to receive one.
-If you’re wondering about my own Pokecredentials: I know all the classic characters from my time selling Pokémon cards to kids at a mall comic-book store in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Basically, I was a drug dealer for children. I’m not proud of it.
-There’s a very curious theme running through Detective Pikachu about adults being so obsessed with Pokémon that they become terrible, neglectful parents. I don’t know what to make of it. But it’s there.
A strong case could be made that the best way to watch this movie is as the first half of a double bill with Under the Silver Lake.
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