Detective Pikachu is a movie based on a game, which is itself based on a game. The original Pokemon games are a set of role-playing games that came out in the nineties. They feature monsters that human children can catch and claim as their own. Investing children in property rights early. Decades later, the creators said, “What if we made another Pokemon game, but made it a terribly obvious mystery? Something that any kid who had seen a season of Detective Conan could figure out?” Someone in the team went, “Wow, this is exactly what is missing from the Pokemon franchise” and then someone else said “Wait wait wait, have you seen Zootopia? Let’s do that, but Poketopia.” Then the guy in charge, well, his brain blew up with how amazing he found that idea and went “I don’t understand what you’re saying.” The first guy repeats “The movie Zootopia, but with Pokemon.” The guy in charge says “You want us to make a narrative about oppression with Pokemon?” “No, no no. Not that part, that part doesn’t matter. Just the fact that it was animals in a city.” The guy in charge goes “Oh, wow! Perfect. Let’s do it.”That is the movie we got: an uninspired, derivative bore.
There are the Pokemon games, which are role-playing games, and then there are side games. The side games include things like puzzle games, dungeon crawlers, and battle games. This movie is based on a spinoff game. “Detective Pikachu” came out late in the 3DS’ lifetime. Rumors of its existence had been around for a while, and when it was announced, it did not make a large splash. It was reviewed well enough. It follows the same story of the movie and includes small puzzles.
There are over 800 Pokémon in the world of Pokemon. Each new generation, or every 3-4 years, adds maybe 200 more pokemon. There are less than 100 in the movie. There are less Pokemon in Detective Pikachu then there are animals in Zootopia. To a Pokemon fan like myself, this makes the world seem small. It makes the movie feel cheap, like they didn’t put the time or budget into the animation department. Pokemon were repeated to the point where you felt the lack of diversity in the Pokemon cast. By the end of the movie, I felt myself seeing a Pokemon and going, Oh, that one again? Another Arcanine? Fine. No Ninetails, I guess. Of course there are more Pokemon in the details like city signs, but there are only so many models. I have a few favorite Pokemon, like Lotad and Ampharos, but these guys aren’t in the movie. I was waiting for them. Never showed. Pokemon fans wanted to see their favorites, and for the part they just were not there.
The city is influenced by Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell and other popular aesthetic inspirations right now. It has the obvious neon, which is in vogue.There is advertising on every street corner — signs that show a Pokemon cafe or a Pokemon laundromat that features some Pokemon frontman. The only reason for this is to express that this is a Pokemon movie. The neon and over saturation of signs is not thematic; the city doesn’t express some sentiment of the story, like it does in Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, or even Zootopia. The color choices don’t feel indicative of meaning, just of what is popular in the moment.
The character design varies from bland to causally horrifying. A lot of the Pokemon look frightening. Lickitung is a near-rapist. Ditto presents some strange questions on the nature of what it is to be human. Character design is more concerned with single hairs of fur than overall ability for me to view the pokemon and sleep again. Pokken, the straight up fighting game, also had too much fur. Often it feels like it’s a show of a computer’s power rather than an aesthetic decision. Psyduck, which has a lot of screen time, is ugly. Pokemon are cute. Why aren’t these Pokemon cute?
This is frightening. Why does his leaf head look like it has veins? Is his leaf head on steroids?
Why does Charizard look like a cracked acrylic painting? Why do his eyes look like marbles and his wings look like a shower curtain? Later you get to see Charizard’s fat rolls.
The plot is obvious. There is a Mewtwo involved. Mewtwo is a very cool Pokemon that appeals to young boys. The first Pokemon movie was about the origin story of Mewtwo. It feels a bit cliche by this point to use it. The plot is almost an afterthought. It’s not a striking mystery that reveals something of the way the world works, a la Gone Girl. The plot doesn’t trip up the older audiences. It is obvious in the same way that Big Hero Six is obvious. A central mystery exists just for the sake of having a central mystery, even though the name tells us that the point of this movie is detective work. Ditto is a Pokemon that can take the form of other Pokemon, and there is a moment within the first ten minutes where you see, in the background, a Ditto transforming into a human.
The two main characters are Pikachu (played by Ryan Reynolds) and Tim Goodman (Justice Smith). I had to look up the name Tim Goodman–he was that unremarkable. This character barely has a personality, and even then it’s mildly annoying. “OMG PIkachu don’t do that!” Goodman says, overreacting like someone trying to get famous in a Youtube video. Pikachu is, of course, a star. It feels like Ryan Reynolds is ad libbing most of his good lines. Ryan Reynolds is the heart of the movie. He is so charming and likable as Pikachu. Ryan Reynolds as a Pikachu feels more comfortable than Justice Smith as a human (I assume that’s his actual body).
There are two side characters. One is a chick with a Psyduck. I wonder why they would ever choose for her to have a Psyduck, it’s not as if there is a major beloved Pokemon character that has one. It is not as if Misty still exists in the conscience of every Pokemon lover out there. This character, Lily, is wildly annoying. She seems to exist only to get on the audience’s nerves. She intentionally takes risky actions. Psyduck has the same annoying trait that he does in the original anime of getting headaches that lead to powerful outbursts. Just like in the anime, these are used in times of trouble. This is frustrating because I would rather have a new Pokemon be fleshed out than see another Psyduck.
If you are a parent trying to decide if this Pokemon movie is right for your child, well, yes. To a child, it would be imaginative, lush and wondrous. It would be a springboard to which the child could imagine their own adventures. Their own city of pokemon. But you could also bring them to a Miyazaki movie, or have them play the original Pokemon games. I’m sure your kid will want to see the Pokemon movie. I imagine they’ll want to see it over and over again. It is in those repeated viewings that it will truly grate on you.
On one last note, I do like this that this movie stays away from Ash. There is still a Pikachu, which is not ideal. But they took a risk and made a new character in a new world. That, more than anything else, made this movie feel fresh. More than anything else, I want to see more uses of Pokemon, more aspects of the Pokemon universe. More ways to interpret Pokemon.