Pokemon Detective Pikachu: A Dark, Beautiful Mess

Warning: Light spoiling ahead

Every generation of Pokemon games begins with the same event: choose one (and only one) of three starter Pokemon from the professor. The one you select can have a huge impact on the rest of the game, especially early on. As the games became more complex, the bond between trainer and Pokemon began to matter more. You have to commit to a Pokemon to bond with, and it becomes the foundation of your team. Without that one solid foundation, the game wouldn’t be the same. Good luck going against Brock with just a Pidgey, Caterpie, and Rattata.  

In this potentially flawed metaphor I’m creating, film director’s starting event is to choose a tone for their film, and on this foundation the rest of the filming, character casting and styling, and everything else falls in line. It is here where Pokemon Detective Pikachu stumbles. Instead of choosing one tone option, they tried to go with a little of everything. The result was a film that felt incredibly inconsistent in tone. Within Detective Pikachu there were three separate movies revolving around each other: a grown-up nostalgia-fest for the Pokemon Red and Blue generation; a kid’s movie with elements taken from the tepidly-reviewed video game Detective Pikachu and Pokemon: The First Movie (1999); and a neo-noir teen drama. Even if you haven’t seen the movie yet, you can probably imagine this mix would not breed great results.

Detective Pikachu was simply boring at times, like I paid a ticket to watch someone battle the Elite Four but ended up watching him grind exp before going in. The only thing that held my gaze to the screen at times was the amazing staging and hoping to catch as many Easter eggs as possible. And the film did not disappoint in those aspects. They really nailed the appearance of the Pokemon, both cute and menacing, and it was so cool to be able to be immersed in that world (I highly recommend seeing it in 3D at the best theater in your area). And from the trading card binder to Snorlax blocking a road to Gengar battling, there were plenty of things that made my 7-year-old heart swell. But the film did not lean hard enough into any of these references to make it more than just an “oh, I know that!” passing moment.

One of the biggest missed opportunities was in the soundtrack. The Pokemon theme song is referenced twice, but there is only the slightest hint of 8-bit synth. Instead, the soundtrack was filled with generic orchestral arrangements and poppy songs. No Pokerap, no bicycle reference, not even Ash, Gary, May, or any of the other variety of old characters popped up. There have been plenty of recent examples in film for Detective Pikachu to have learned from. Last year’s Ready Player One showed how you could lean reference heavy without distracting too much from the plot, while Ralph Breaks the Internet weaved reference characters into the plot effectively. Detective Pikachu didn’t really succeed in either way.

I was hoping that I would have more fun than I did while watching the film. The plot of Pokemon Detective Pikachu was incredibly heavy on the tragic elements. There’s a big difference between tragic and melodramatic, which Pokemon was plenty of times. Heck, Ash died at least twice in the 90s alone. But it always felt dramatized, and with a ray of sunshine soon over the horizon, not as real and dark as the filmmakers portrayed Tim coping with the loss of two parents.  

You could see the conflicted intentions of the film through the way that the actors portrayed their characters too. Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu was heavily lifted from the Detective Pikachu game, with some added potty mouth for good measure (by far the most enjoyable part of the film). Justice Smith played Tim far too seriously, although it’s hard to blame him when all the sets look more Blade Runner than cute video game for kids. Smith’s seriousness felt jarring when compared to a supporting cast who seemed to be playing closer to the anime style seen in the shows. The cartoonish style of characters like reporter Lucy Stevens, evil genius Howard Clifford, and Pokemon trainer Sebastian should have fit right into a Pokemon film, but certainly not in this one.    

Even with as much criticism as I have for the movie, I can’t say it was awful or that I regret seeing it. Perhaps my expectations were too high out of excitement of the most realistic portrayal of a world with Pokemon to date. Visually, it was an incredible world to see, and made the film worth seeing for anyone who loves the Pokemon franchise and dreamed of having their own Pokemon to run around with as a kid. With any luck, this film will be a success and encourage producers to fund more movies like it. Until then, I’ll stick with getting my nostalgia fix by playing Fire Red on my phone.  

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