Review: ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ is not quite surreal enough

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/14/19 2:05am

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is without a doubt one of the most bizarre ideas for a mainstream, Hollywood family film that I’ve encountered in recent memory. To be clear, I’m not referring to the basic notion of adapting the hugely popular Japanese multi-media franchise into a live-action American film. “Pokémon” is so ubiquitous at this point that even if you’ve never really experienced it –— as is the case with me — you’ve almost certainly at least heard about it through cultural osmosis. Moreover, that ubiquity practically transformed into notoriety with the 2016 release of the augmented reality game “Pokémon Go,” of which, again, you’ve almost definitely heard. 

Given that the current age of Hollywood filmmaking is so reliant on big-budget adaptations of nostalgic staples of geek culture, it’s not that surprising that a live-action “Pokémon” has bubbled to the surface. What is surprising, however, is that someone decided that the best way to appeal to an audience beyond the “Pokémon” fanbase was to adapt a video-game spin-off titled “Detective Pikachu,” thereby conceptually resulting in a film noir murder mystery spoof … but with Pokémon. 

Like I said, as a premise for a $150 million wannabe blockbuster, that borders on outright surreal. And things only got stranger when it was revealed that Ryan Reynolds — an actor currently coasting on the success of his lauded performance as the motormouth title character in the “Deadpool” films — would be providing the voice of the titular character. I’m sure that there’s some overlap between “Pokémon” and “Deadpool” fans, but the intended demographics for these franchises form two distinct circles, not a Venn diagram.

My point is that there’s a reason the trailer for “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” elicited a sort of morbid curiosity in me. Rather than attempting to assure audiences that the film would be relatively normal, the marketing fully embraced the zany absurdity of the premise and the circumstances surrounding it. Over the course of two minutes, that trailer managed to shoot the moon a minimum of four times, ricocheting back in forth from terrible to brilliant to terrible to brilliant and back again … and then maybe back again one more time after that just for good measure. The only conclusion I could draw was that the film would either be so bad it’s good, or that it would somehow miraculously succeed by trying to be even more outlandish than the title already suggests. As far as I was concerned, either outcome sounded enjoyable.

Disappointingly, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is neither strange nor misguided enough to be a surrealist masterpiece or an enjoyable dud. Indeed, much of the film is frustratingly competent from a technical perspective — nothing mind-blowing, but perfectly functional. Which shouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Even the most bizarre films can sometimes benefit by starting from a solid technical foundation. The problem is that “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” isn’t all that bizarre. It’s incredibly tame, by-the-numbers, and thus rather uninspired. Indeed, the screenplay does its best to tone down both the “Pokémon” and the “Detective” angles of its title, opting instead to fuse two of the more popular narrative tropes from family-oriented films; “a boy and his [fill in the blank]” meets “big bad corporations are evil and only our intrepid cast of youthful characters can stop them.” Of course, as is almost always the case, the corporation isn’t really evil. Films like “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” tend to discuss capitalism in terms of a singular evil CEO figure, rather than in terms of a much larger exploitative system. But hey, framing capitalism as a massive exploitative system wouldn’t be very on-brand for Hollywood, am I right?

The shame of it all is that “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” starts with a relatively intriguing set-up. Protagonist Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City — wherein humans and Pokémon live in harmony — because his estranged father Harry, a detective, has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Shortly after arriving, Tim encounters Pikachu (Reynolds), Harry’s partner who happens to be suffering from recent amnesia. The two team up to discover who murdered Harry and to restore Pikachu’s memory. At first glance, that’s an incredibly conventional murder mystery outline, but intentionally so because it provides so many potential opportunities to highlight the humor in a “hard-boiled” detective story featuring Pokémon. Indeed, the film’s best moments are precisely when it takes those opportunities and runs with them. 

However, once it establishes the basic parameters of its narrative, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” almost completely abandons the appeal of the genre it theoretically wants to spoof. Tim and Pikachu are less detectives than they are extremely lucky; clues just fall into their laps, and most of the other murder mystery tropes featured in the film feel obligatory rather than inspired. Of course, the inability to construct a compelling mystery wouldn’t be so detrimental to the film if the story they did choose to tell was especially interesting. 

The problem, ultimately, is that the film has four credited writers; thus, the final script has plenty of solid moments that are nevertheless surrounded by some truly inept connective tissue. The lack of a compelling mystery aside, there are at least clear stakes, motivations, characterizations, themes and even some genuinely touching emotional beats. Thus, when the sloppy and choppy writing does rear its not-infrequent head, it feels all the more disappointing. 

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the reveal of the villain and their subsequent evil plan. The film telegraphs the identity of the villain practically from the first scene in which the character appears; indeed, the moment the character in question spoke their opening line, I leaned over to my best friend and whispered, “That’s the bad guy.” Lo and behold, I was right. As a result, the reveal may be a little clichéd, but at least it makes a degree of sense. By direct contrast, the actual evil scheme is not only rather ableist, but it also has no basis in any of the preceding events. It is a pay-off for a set-up that appears to have never really existed in the first place. The result is a third act that somehow simultaneously makes perfect sense and feels completely out of left field. 

It’s interesting to note that Nicole Perlman is credited as a storywriter for the film. Perlman wrote the infamously unhinged first draft of “Guardians of the Galaxy” before director James Gunn largely retooled her work into the eventual shooting script. Likewise, as far as I can tell, Perlman wrote the first draft of “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” before subsequent writers were brought on board. One can’t help but imagine that the current film’s most fun moments are leftovers from her original, livelier vision. 

Again, none of this is to suggest the film is bad. Far from it — most of the run-time is relatively enjoyable. But it’s just such a thoroughly middle-of-the-road experience, made all the more frustrating by the occasional glimpses of genuine artistic inspiration. For instance, most of the cinematography by John Mathieson is fairly unremarkable. As video essayist Lindsay Ellis notes in her video about Joel Schumacher’s “The Phantom of the Opera” (for which Mathieson was also cinematographer), Mathieson is really only as good as his director. Thus, mirroring director Rob Letterman, Mathieson’s work on “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is mediocre, marked only by its distracting overreliance on shallow focus. But every once in a while, Letterman and Mathieson appear to have had the semblance of an interesting idea, and thus the film is sprinkled throughout with legitimately dynamic shots meant to be reminiscent of classic 1940s film noirs. 

Similarly, most of the actors are perfectly decent. Reynolds’ voice acting, in particular, elicits a number of chuckles even if his talents feel a little under-utilized in such a tame setting. One wonders if the film was forcibly trimmed for a PG rating. Noticeably, everyone plays his or her part with a straight face, barring Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens, a junior reporter desperate to hit it big with a major story. Newton seems to think she’s in a completely different film, overacting with a campy knowingness that suggests she expects the audience to be in on the joke of her character as a parody of a stock trope from countless murder mystery stories. 

But again, the film so rarely embraces its ostensible aspirations to be a genre homage/parody; thus Newton feels both out of place and indicative of an alternative version of “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” that I actually would have much preferred. Her off-kilter performance combined with the occasional dynamic shot on the part of John Mathieson and the vestiges of Perlman’s original writing collectively suggest there is a fresh, zany version of this film itching to break free. It’s just a shame that almost everyone involved decided that playing it safe was better than playing it exciting.