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Pokémon Detective Pikachu movie review: Pikachu Fights A Losing Battle for Our Hearts

I want a Bulbasaur.

I have always wanted a Bulbasaur. I want a Bulbasaur so badly, I would happily trade most of my material belongings for one. How could you not want a Pokémon companion? Who wouldn’t love a colorful, powerful animal-ish friend who functions more like a familiar than a pet? A creature with a soul, a personality, fantastic traits, and a willingness to walk through the adventure of life with you, facing all challenges at your side?

Though it isn’t at all the most important thing about them, kids (and many adults) are often so taken with Pokémon because of their cuteness or coolness. Pokémon Detective Pikachu doesn’t skimp on making an effort to realize Pokémon as 3-Dimensional creatures that we can picture in our world. Spotting a Machamp directing traffic, or a Ditto as a personal assistant is fantastic, and will be enough to satisfy most kids who see this movie. Scenes with Psyduck and Mr. Mime are particularly great. I really must congratulate the animators and designers for making vibrant, colorful, and interesting visuals for the world of this film.

The unfortunate thing about this movie is that – despite its animated excellence – it falls flat in every effort to capture our hearts, and suffers from so many plot holes or long, plotless stretches that it only succeeds in frustrating the adult viewer. I regret to inform that it will especially disappoint lovers of Pokémon games, shows, and movies.

Part of what made Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back such a terrific film in 1998 (and I mean that, go re-watch it today and it absolutely holds up) was an investment in the growth of its characters. Mewtwo is explored as a tormented victim who learns to be more than what he was designed to be. Ash is defined by his parental love of his Pokémon, to the point of sacrificing his own life. Even Team Rocket, the silly villains who are always foiled, are seen to be horrified by the idea of genetically modified Pokémon used as weapons. Mind control, genetic experimentation ethics, and concepts of found family are all explored deeply. The same is true of much of the animated show, which began in 1997 and still continues today. Largely, Pokémon media is and has always been about found family: stories of damaged or abused Pokémon finding kindness in people, or people learning to be better stewards of the world because of their interactions with Pokémon.

If you ask me what Pokémon Detective Pikachu is about, I have to admit, it’s a hard thing to answer. It doesn’t merely fall short by comparison to the rest of Pokémon media. When considered on its own, as a film, it suffers from poor pacing, a lack of plot, odd directing choices, and a badly conceived villain. Perhaps, worst of all, Detective Pikachu fails most in living up to its title, because of the lack of Detective work done, and the lack of actual Pikachu presence in the movie.

***Spoilers Ahead!***

Pokémon Detective Pikachu fails so badly, perhaps, because we know what an impressive and moving story in this world is like. Instead, this film seems to not know what it wants to be about, and struggles throughout to make sense of its own plot, thematic content, and emotional through line.

Detective Pikachu centers around a kid named Tim who used to love Pokémon, but stopped because his dad, Detective Harry Goodman, left him (a logic which is never properly made clear). In Ryme City, Tim finds a Pikachu he can understand, and they try to find out what happened to Harry, together.

As a premise, this should be rife with emotional tension, and I would be remiss not to commend Justice Smith for doing his best with what he’s given. Despite a lot of awkwardly worded dialogue, and some really odd joke beats, his performance as Tim is the most consistent in the movie. In fact, his solemn moment crying about his dad to Pikachu is probably the most resonant in the movie, even if it is laden with emotional weight that it hasn’t earned.

Despite that, no real emotional resolutions are ever reached in this story. Tim does forgive his dad, but not because he’s changed, or actually apologized for leaving. Harry Goodman, despite his very coded name, doesn’t seem to be a character at all, even though it is revealed that he was inside Pikachu all along. Even worse, Pikachu doesn’t have any purpose as a Detective at all – he repeatedly demonstrates is how poor a detector he is, and proves to serve purely as a means for Ryan Reynolds to make quippy but unnecessary comments throughout the story. Moreover, Tim’s entire relationship with Pikachu is revealed to be a quasi-friendship with his amnesiac dad, who was placed into Pikachu’s body by Mewtwo, presumably to save his life. At no point, however, do we understand why Mewtwo did not save Tim’s dad from minute one, when he proves capable of dematerializing and rematerializing the bodies of thousands of Ryme City residents later. Also, at no point is any explanation given for why Tim can understand his dad’s voice inside Pikachu’s body, when none of the other human characters who are popped into their Pokémon’s bodies during the third act are able to speak normally at all.

The choice to make Pikachu into Harry is a bad one, ultimately. Tim’s learned friendship with Pikachu is nullified by it, but also, Tim’s journey to forgive his father now seems trite and manufactured by Mewtwo for no perceivable reason. Tim may have found a way to grow, but Harry never does. Because of the amnesia, it seems that we never even properly met Pikachu, and we don’t even get to properly meet Harry, because no one knows who they are in this movie. Even the detective work in this movie is all done off screen – it’s relayed by explainers, some video, and the reveals never land because they are barely ever concealed at all.

A detective story with no real detective work. A Pikachu movie where we never meet Pikachu. A Dad arc where we never get to know Dad. On nearly all fronts, this movie disappointed me.

At almost all points, this movie is confused about what it wants to say. Is Ryme City more evolved, because it considers Pokémon to be residents as much as its people are? If so, why are underground battles still so popular, even when known about by its police? Unanswered questions abound in this movie, and they stem from the lack of proper worldbuilding done in this supposedly different kind of Pokémon culture. When Bill Nighysvillain reveals that his ultimate goal is to become a Pokémon, and force all other people to become Pokémon, it doesn’t land as something sinister or even disturbing (though it very much could have been), but as confusing and nonsensical. Like everything else in it, the movie fails to earn the place it wants to win, in our hearts and minds. It’s full of long stretches of wide landscape views, and establishing shots or traveling scenes that go on for too long, without reason. Beautiful to look at, but ultimately pointless.

Again, I think these beautiful views and the excitement of seeing a group of helpful Bulbasaur realized on the big screen will be enough to win over the kids in the audience. The movie and its Pokémon are often cute. Kids shouldn’t be deprived of seeing something so well animated. For those of you like me, however, who care much more about what a Bulbasaur *means*, cute won’t be enough.

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