Wed. Aug 12th, 2020

Review: ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ is nostalgic and fun, but not much else

(L-R) Detective Pikachu (RYAN REYNOLDS) and JUSTICE SMITH as Tim Goodman in Pokémon Detective Pikachu, a Warner Bros. Pictures release (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

In all honesty, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is exactly what you’d expect from a modern live-action Pokémon film, and will certainly divide audiences – it isn’t going to win any new admirers to the franchise (except for maybe very young audiences, who may have this film serve as their introduction to the iconic Japanese creation) and people who are unconvinced or disinterested in Pokémon won’t suddenly have their minds changed by what this film offers. However, it will certainly satisfy fans and will be everything devotees would want from a video game adaptation, at least from a major Hollywood production based on one of them. I am part way in between the two schools of thought – my younger years were punctuated by relentless playing of these iconic games, but as time went on and I became older, I moved onto other interests, with Pokémon being nothing more than distant but pleasant memories. Detective Pikachu is a few things – a joyful adventure, a healthy dosage of inoffensive nostalgia, and a fun adaptation of an iconic franchise. However, the question that needs to be asked is very simple: is that enough?

A standalone film, separate from the more popular story of Ash and his quest to “catch ’em all”, Detective Pikachu is set in a futuristic city not too different from other similar settings, with the exception of the titular Pokémon populating it, co-existing with humans who train and partner with them. Our protagonist (or at least one of them) is a young man named Tim (Justice Smith), who has just discovered that after the death of his detective father in a brutal accident, he has been left an orphan. Not someone who buys into the folklore of the Pokémon, Tim ventures to the metropolis that housed his father and a huge population of people and their strange companions to collect his father’s belongings and, as he says “get things wrapped up” – and along the way, he encounters none other than the titular Pikachu, the adorable character that is some lovably abnormal amalgamation of a rabbit and lightning bolt. The difference between this encounter is that unlike nearly every other Pokémon, Tim is able to understand Pikachu (who is here voiced by Ryan Reynolds, an unexpected but otherwise fitting choice) – and the unlikely pair forms an archetypal odd couple as they go off in search of an answer to an enigmatic mystery that strikes a little too close for the both of them.

Is Detective Pikachu enough to bring Pokémon back to a wider audience, and not have it be the popular but restricted franchise that is more a remnant of our childhoods rather than an active entity that we still enjoy? The answer isn’t too clear, and taking a side at either side of the polarity is a bad idea, because it would be either too generous or too dismissive either way. Some may just ignore this as a fruitless attempt to cash in on nostalgia (after all, we are living in the Golden Age of Nostalgia, where faded franchises and ), and to point out the flaws embedded deeply within this film. Others may praise this as being nothing more than entertaining escapism, a lovable adventure comedy that captures the spirit of the franchise’s highest moments and translates them into a contrived but otherwise fun film. Once again, we find ourselves right in the middle of a crossroad of critique, and perhaps the biggest takeaway from Detective Pikachu is that it has equal flaws and merits, and whether the viewer sees one of them overpowering the other, or sees them cancelling each other out leaving us ambivalent to the film really depends on the viewer. Personally, Detective Pikachu was good enough to be entertaining, but pales in comparison to what it could’ve been.

Having said that, Detective Pikachu is a very sweet and endearing film. It is very easy to criticize a film like this for its many flaws and considering this is the most well-received video game adaptation of all time should tell you about the dire state of the game-to-film industry. It certainly has its charms, and it will be enthralling for younger and older audiences alike, purely because of the lovable chaos residing within this film. The most significant merit is that this film decided to try and shoot its shot by focusing on the most famous character in the franchise and did admirably in personifying Pikachu and making the film revolve around him. Not only is the character effortlessly adorable in how he is designed, he’s voiced by the charming Ryan Reynolds, who brings his genial likability and sardonic sense of humor to a character we’re all familiar with, combining two elements that were previously unthinkable and pulling it off wonderfully. Justice Smith is also serviceable as the human protagonist, and while he does have to play second fiddle to a CGI character, he does his very best, and even though his talents let him down in the film’s more dramatic moments, he is passable and establishes himself as someone to watch in the future.

Another reason to watch Detective Pikachu, perhaps the most significant one, is that it is a very well-made film. Unlike many video game adaptations, this one doesn’t look cheap, and it is clear the filmmakers were working from a substantial budget and knew how to utilize their resources. This mainly manifested in the visual design, with the Pokémon taking the lion’s share of the design, and understandably so: there is something endearing about seeing all these memorable characters in new live-action settings, and in exterior scenes, the vast number of Pokémon lurking both in the foreground and background prove to be satisfying for the eagle-eyed Pokémon devotee. Where it may falter in other areas, we can’t criticize Detective Pikachu for a lack of warmth, because it has this in abundance. It isn’t a soulless, graphics-driven affair, but rather something that makes good use of the technology available and creates a film that is visually dazzling and certainly memorable, if only for the experience of seeing these new visual incarnations of the beloved characters that have remained with us for decades.

Yet, this is exactly where Detective Pikachu also begins to show signs of massive flaws. Normally a review exists not only to establish one’s thoughts on a piece, but also to convince or dissuade others to see a film – and the problem here is that regardless of whether or not I personally think this film should be sought after is irrelevant, because in essence, everyone has already seen this film in some form or the other. Detective Pikachu is just a jumbled collection of plot points, character arcs and story developments lifted directly from decades of action and detective fiction. This is perhaps the most predictable film of the year, with the story being so contrived, everything about this film’s plot can be seen from even before you enter the cinema. Moreover, the problem is that Detective Pikachu isn’t only extremely predictable, it also lacks the self-awareness required to pull such a trite story off without it becoming dull. In fact, the only part of Detective Pikachu that wasn’t extremely expected was the ending, and that isn’t a good thing, mainly because the way this film resolves the central mystery is so utterly deranged and hysterical in how poorly it was executed, it defined the film. Every bit of goodwill this film had in terms of its charms and exceptional design was overshadowed by a resolution not even the most unstable of writers could have concocted. It doesn’t mean Detective Pikachu is bad in any way, but rather than it was certainly style above substance, and while that doesn’t really matter (we could’ve exactly expect much from a film that prioritizes CGI creatures over humans), but with some more work, Detective Pikachu really could have been far better, and a watershed moment for alternative media adaptations. Detective Pikachu is decent – it isn’t nearly as good as it could have been, and it leaves a large amount of potential behind in its efforts to appear more visually dazzling than driven by a unique narrative. It isn’t a film that will redefine the genre, but it is precisely what we’d expect from a live-action, big-budget Pokémon film. As I said before, it definitely is going to entertain most fans of the franchise and will hopefully attract younger viewers into the world of Pokémon enough for them to seek out the other media based around it. For the purposes of being an advertisement for a new generation of potential Pokémon fans, as well as a nostalgic trip for devotees, Detective Pikachu serves its purpose well enough. However, from a more intermediary perspective, it isn’t a great film, and while it is nothing more than diverting escapism, its charms do eventually wear a little thin, and it ultimately leads to a film that essentially may not be particularly great, but when taken alongside its more well-executed aspects, it becomes clear that despites its faults, Detective Pikachu is good enough, and not much more.

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