Arts movie review

‘Detective Pikachu’ fails to shock

We don’t think you ‘gotta catch it all’

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Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) explains the clues he's found.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Directed by Rob Letterman
Screenplay by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit  
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton
Rated PG

Detective Pikachu tells the story of a young man named Tim (Justice Smith) who travels to Ryme City, where people and Pokémon live in harmony, to deal with the aftermath of his father’s apparent death. Along the way he meets a wise-cracking, caffeine-addicted Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) that claims there’s more to the story, leading the two of them on an action-packed adventure. With assistance from an intern investigator Lucy, played by Kathryn Newton, and her Psyduck, they work to overcome crime lords, angry Pokémon, and mutants, and uncover the mystery of what truly happened the night his father disappeared.

We will admit that this movie handles Pokémon fairly well. The audience is treated to numerous instances of the creatures in action and contributing to society, such as when a group of Squirtles helped the firefighters to put out a fire. There’s a hilarious interrogation scene with Mr. Mime, and most of the Pokémon were depicted with CGI as good as one could hope for. That said, fans of the franchise that were hoping for ample Pokéballs and battles will be dissatisfied.

Unfortunately, we found this film disappointing in several other respects as well. The writing was particularly underwhelming. We felt that the film was going for a casual tone with realistic dialogue and ended up overshooting the mark. Many lines felt underwritten, with one of the worst offenders being: “humanity is evil, but you have shown me that not all humans are bad.” In contrast, Lucy’s introductory monologue, where she boasts about her detective skill, was generic and overdone to the point of ridiculousness. While this moment was likely included for comedic effect, it felt tonally dissonant and positioned Lucy more as a cringey laugh-inducer than a real human being. In the rest of the film, she rarely moves beyond stereotypical romantic interest.

This was emblematic of a larger problem. Most side characters characters seemed to do little other than advance the plot, often acting in ways that contradicted their established personalities. One character, who had been set up as a bit of a jerk, was suddenly reformed midway through the film, and another conveniently spouted exposition while lacking any motivation to do so. Without agency, it did not feel like they had much depth. Luckily, Tim and Pikachu are better developed, and they did learn to act a solid team, with each supporting the other through his lowest point. The pacing wasn’t bad, as every few minutes we’re introduced to a development in the mystery. It is worth noting that the narrative sets up several twists with obvious foreshadowing, which, while far from unforgivable in a kids’ movie, might frustrate older audiences.

The film addressed both artificial human evolution and environmental responsibility, but they were not given any real focus. Instead, family acted as its central theme. While this is not inherently problematic, that is a fairly generic trope in children’s movies, and we didn’t feel that Detective Pikachu presented it in a particularly novel or compelling way. At several points, we felt ourselves comparing this movie to Zootopia — they’re both fish-out-of-water detective stories, and they both play with the idea of merging nature and human society. In fact, the scene where Tim Goodman arrives at Ryme city felt like a near shot-for-shot recreation of the moment when Judy Hopps first sees Zootopia. However, Zootopia managed to combine these familiar elements with nuanced perspectives on issues like racism and sexism, presenting them in a way accessible to all. Even adults could leave the theater feeling as though they’d been challenged in some way, but we never experienced that with Detective Pikachu.

While there are some great visuals in this movie, its subpar story and character development make this a mediocre film at best. Of course, if seeing realistic Pokémon and listening to Ryan Reynolds crack jokes is what you’re into, then don’t let us stop you!