I showed up to an early preview of Detective Pikachu in my full-body Pikachu jammies, fueled by 20 years of Pokemon nostalgia and an insatiable love of bad movies, so there was no way I wasn’t going to like this thing.
Even so, you can imagine my delight when it proved to be not a so-bad-it’s-good travesty of Pokemon fandom, but legitimately good, entirely worthy of my Pikajams, and perhaps the only recent piece of entertainment (other than Avengers: Endgame) that has actually respected the dedication of its fans.
Based upon the 3DS game, Detective Pikachu follows once-aspiring Pokemon trainer-turned-insurance drone Tim Goodman as be begrudgingly teams up with a talking Pikachu to investigate the death of his detective father. Given what I’ve read of the game (I haven’t played it), it actually seems to be a pretty fair adaptation, but let’s be real, no one is seeing this movie for adaptive accuracy. We’re seeing it so we can squeal at the absurd miracle of getting 1) a big-budget Pokemon movie in which 2) Pikachu is voiced by Ryan FREAKING Reynolds and 3) the fan artist responsible for the “creepy realistic Pokemon” series was tapped to help design the Pokemon for the big screen. It’s not a perfect movie (I’ll get to that in a bit), but for our particular audience, Detective Pikachu is a treasure.
It’s unabashedly a fanservice movie, but it’s a fanservice movie done right. It watches as if the filmmakers somehow delved into all our Pokefan heads, found what we most wanted to see on screen, and then crafted a plot that allowed us to see it in a way that (mostly) made narrative sense. We get to see many of our favorite Pokemon, and we get to see Pikachu battle both a Charizard and a Mewtwo, all set up in a world that we would willfully inhabit if we could: a world that combines both the childlike wonder of the regions we remember exploring with the adult perspective of the world we grew up to live in.
Tim himself is very much a stand-in for adult fans, who wanted to be Pokemon trainers as kids but now find themselves in significantly less magical adult jobs. And though it’s a movie based on a children’s property, it’s not really a movie for children. Kids can watch it, of course (as long as parents are okay with them hearing Pikachu drop some mild cusses), but ultimately it’s designed for those of us who grew up with the franchise.
Which is why my inner 12-year-old was screaming the whole time, and my adult face literally hurt from grinning so much.
Half the people in my theatre squealed Pokemon names with delight every time they popped up on screen—perhaps the only time anyone has ever been excited to see Pidgey or Magikarp—and though I usually hate it when people talk during movies, this time I was squealing right along with them. Detective Pikachu’s filmmakers earned my trust the moment Tim comments about a cubone wearing the skill of its dead parent, and kept it right though the ridiculous end.
Make no mistake, this movie is an absolute love letter to Pokemon fans.
Its mileage with non-fans, though, will vary. While the Pokemon fan in me gives Detective Pikachu infinite stars, the analytical writer has to acknowledge that outside that context, it’s close to a 3.5-star movie. The opening act is solid, but near the middle and end, the plot undertakes some seriously complicated gymnastics to make itself make sense, and they don’t always land gracefully. Many plot twists are revealed through barely-earned flashback-style exposition dumps, and the device used to make these dumps—advanced holographic imaging tech that can piece together complex environments from video footage—introduces plot holes through its very existence.
Characters often lack information at the convenience of the plot, even though they should logically have that information because of the way the device gathers it. Never mind that some was gathered from police cameras that can apparently travel through time. Given that the source of its most essential information was police footage, Lieutenant Yoshida (Ken Watanabe ❤!) in particular should have had significant plot-affecting information that he conveniently didn’t, purely at the whim of the writers.
Unexpectedly, some of the plot gymnastics became less egregious upon a second viewing (Of course I saw it twice), but even then those come down to the cheap writing trick of cutting off important information the mere second before characters can actually receive it. Granted, it works to keep the structure of the film intact—and the film is tightly paced—but such devices also make the tension feel artificial and frustrating.
The film’s emotional beats also fall flat. It’s hard to take seriously as anything but a comedy, which means that its attempts at genuinely sad scenes don’t really work, especially when Tim is mourning his dad to a talking Pikachu of all things (despite a convincing performance by Justice Smith). When it combines its emotions with comedy, though, it excels—as when a devastated, lonely Detective Pikachu sobs the iconic Pokemon theme in a truly inspired gem of a scene.
Finally, though she’s essential to moving the plot along, Kathryn Newton’s unpaid intern-slash-aspiring reporter Lucy Stevens fills her role with every spunky reporter stereotype ever and as a result is, frankly, grating to watch. The way the movie uses her Psyduck partner, however, is hilarious.
Psyduck itself raises pesky world building questions—Why the heck would a person in a high-stress environment in the middle of a densely populated city want a Pokemon whose stress headaches can literally trigger apocalyptic geography-leveling energy pulses?—but then, those kinds of questions are ultimately irrelevant to Pokemon fans, given the absurd characteristics we’re accustomed to seeing in Pokemon lore (see again: cubone wearing its mother’s skull. And that’s not even the most WTF of them).
Pokemon’s is a world that functions best when you don’t think about it too much except in terms of how it’s awesome, which is something the filmmakers did quite well—even for Pokemon that didn’t necessarily merit it, and this is yet another great success of this movie.
I’ve never given two thoughts to Mr. Mime or Ditto except to be pissed at how hard it was to find them and how lame they were once I did. Detective Pikachu took two of the lamest Pokemon, used them brilliantly, and instantly turned them into two of my new favorites.
More than being mere fanservice, this movie contributed something new and wholly unexpected to the Pokemon universe—first by simply existing, and then by giving fans a movie that loves its world as much as they do.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to don my Pikajams and see it again.
EXTRA: Also, because they’re fun, the other promos, including the brilliant and adorable release day “full film leak.”
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