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Non-Review Review: Detective Pikachu

Detective Pikachu is disarmingly cute, both the movie and the character.

There are a number of serious problems with Detective Pikachu, although none of them are so serious as to become fatal flaws and most are easily explained by virtue of the film’s target audience. Most obviously, Detective Pikachu is never a movie that is particularly elegant in its storytelling. This is a film that burdened with an impressive volume of visual and spoken exposition, particularly in the opening half-hour. Characters are constantly expositing to one another, and often spelling out their motivations and perspectives for the benefit of the audience.

“Just want to take another Pikachu.”

However, once Detective Pikachu gets past that, there’s a lot of charm on display. A lot of that is down to the two central performances from Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith, both of whom provide solid emotional throughlines and play the comic absurdity of the premise. There is also a lot to be said for the efficiency of the script, which rockets through virtually everything that the audience might expect from a Pokémon film. The energy of the cast prevents it from ever feeling too much like a checklist.

Detective Pikachu never quite achieves the level of transcendence, never pushes past its simple premise towards something more intriguing or compelling. Instead, Detective Pikachu delivers pretty much what it promises, with an endearing and infectious smile on its face.

No drive.

The biggest issues with Detective Pikachu are entirely understandable. Detective Pikachu is film designed to appeal to two separate audiences; the nineties kids who came of age playing the original iteration of Pokémon and watching the original anime, and young audiences who are more familiar with more recent versions of the game and characters. Detective Pikachu often hedges its bets in trying to tell a story for both adults and children, which often means pausing the adult-centric plot to reframe the narrative in terms that children can understand.

Although jarring, this is not the worst problem for a film like this to have. After all, it is best for something like Detective Pikachu to include as broad and diverse an audience as possible, and there’s something almost refreshing in watching a nostalgic children’s movie like this that is consciously and overtly aware of its target audience. However, there is a certain inelegance in the exposition, in the way that the characters are constantly repeating motivations and narrating memories, in order to ensure that the target audience picks it all up.

A shocking twist.

Indeed, part of what is so striking about Detective Pikachu is that so much of its exposition is character- or motivation-based. There is a lot of effort put into explaining and contextualising the relationship between the protagonist Tim Goodman and his missing (possibly murdered) father. A lot of this is fairly rote and predictable stuff; Tim’s father was absent, his mother dies when he was young, and the two have remained estranged in the years ever since. Detective Pikachu is not especially subtle in getting that information across to the viewer.

However, there is something striking in how readily Detective Pikachu assumes that its audience will follow along with the actual world that it has created. Part of this may simply be confidence in the target audience demographics; an assumption on the part of the production team that the audience will already know what a “Mr. Mime” or a “Bulbasaur” is through decades of exposure. However, the result is strangely compelling. Detective Pikachu provides enough context to make sense of these elements without feeling obligated to over-explain them.

Enemy Mime.

As such, Detective Pikachu is packed with images that feel fresh and weird to those audience members with only a casual (or outdated) understanding of how Pokémon work. The most striking images in Detective Pikachu expect audiences to just go along with it; gigantic monsters that carry mountains on their backs, little packs of feral plant creatures that guide a lost and wounded creature towards salvation, traffic diverted around a giant sleeping teddy bear in the middle of a traffic intersection.

Detective Pikachu creates a strangely enchanting version of the uncanny. In fact, it’s notable how much discussion there was online about giving characters like Pikachu or Jigglypuff hair rather than letting them be smooth. All of the detail of this world-building has been baked into video games or cartoons for decades, but it provides a foundation for a world populated with striking little details; to pick one small example, there’s something very engaging about a street vender who is briefly seen cooking by the tale of his Charamander.

Feelin’ (caf)fiene.

This surreal but alluring version of the uncanny is only enriched by the shrewd decision to eschew photo-realism. The creatures in Detective Pikachu are not convinced to fool the audience into thinking that they could exist. In fact, the opening scenes make a point to draw the audience’s attention to a world where it seems like all wildlife has been replaced by these obviously computer-generated critters. The Pokémon are all shaded in rich colours; many have unnaturally smooth skin and undetailed textures. In other worlds, the look more like cartoons than animals.

This is a smart choice from the production team. Most immediately, it prevents any implication of animal cruelty in the movie’s world. These might fill the role of dogs and cats within the world, but they are very much not dogs and cats. Indeed, the plot hinges on these creatures having greater agency than animals, and the eponymous character even spends a small stretch of the movie riding around inside a child’s car seat. The animation style pushes the Pokémon away from verisimilitude and more towards hyper-stylisation.

Mere puff.

More than that, it allows Detective Pikachu to feel slightly closer to conventional animation than a lot of the other big-budget movies that employ computer-generated characters like Guardians of the Galaxy or War for the Planet of the Apes. This is not to disparage those other films, but instead to illustrate how confidently Detective Pikachu pitches itself. In terms of general aesthetic, this is much closer to something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which is a welcome approach to material like this.

The title character is particularly impressive. While Detective Pikachu chooses its references rather well, the film’s beat-by-beat plot occasionally feels a little tired or hackneyed; individual scenes feel transparently about providing information dumps. However, even those scenes are strangely watchable thanks to the animation of the lead character. One character handing another a photo is a standard movie beat. Somehow, an adorable Pikachu watching one character handing another a photo is much more engaging.

Will he be pressing charges?

The production design carries over into the world inhabited by the Pokémon. The film was largely shot in London, but the production design is explicitly Japanese for obvious reasons, and the two leads are American. The result is a fascinating hybrid in terms of the look and feel of the world. At times, it feels like a modern family-friendly British take on the future imagined by Blade Runner, a world of neon and skyscrapers and street markets. There is something very strange and effective in that, fitting with the general hybridised nature of the plot.

The plot of Detective Pikachu is largely stitched together from outside sources, built on homages and references. Again, the extent to which the movie really works is the absurdity of asking an electric rabbit with a deerstalker cap to navigate these familiar elements. Detective Pikachu features plot beats drawn from a variety of sources, casting Bill Nighy as a wheelchair-bound peace-seeking visionary who seems like he might have arrived from the set of X-Men. The mystery evokes Zootopia. The climax feels drawn from Tim Burton’s Batman.


However, the most surprising and exciting plot reference comes at the climax, when the nature of the sinister conspiracy is revealed. Of course, to reference the movie in the review might spoil it for potential audience members, but it recalls the audacity of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? drawing its central plot from Chinatown while being aimed at a children’s audience. That plot reference in Detective Pikachu seems almost absurd; a family-friendly movie built around a twist from one of the most beloved R-rated movies of the decade.

Even more striking than that audacity is the extent to which it actually fits with the story being told. Detective Pikachu grapples – very gently and very broadly – with some of the “original sin” baked into the Pokémon premise. The movie’s second sequence – after an introductory action beat – is intended to consciously re-frame the long-implied relationship between creature and trainer. Tim is told “it has to choose you.” The relationship between human and Pokémon is built on consent and mutual understanding, rather than on captivity or servitude.

A quack detective.

Notably, a large part of Detective Pikachu takes place in a city that appears to have moved beyond the conventional trappings of Pokémon; the creatures are no longer carried around in balls, but move freely through the city. Although many are paired with human beings, others roam free without being hunted or traded. Indeed, battles are outlawed in “Ryme City.” The result is what feels like a much more utopian and savvy take on the Pokémon mythos.

This is carried over into the decision to play the human-Pokémon partnership similar to Zootopia, as children’s film version of those old “two partners from different backgrounds team up to fight crime” set-ups that were so popular in eighties movies like 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon. Detective Pikachu never leans too heavily or too overtly into the racial politics of that set-up, which is most likely a canny choice. However, it goes a long way to making sense of the film’s climax.

Detective Pikachu works much better than it should, which is a victory of itself.

2 Responses

  1. Ryan Gosling?

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