Review: ‘Pokemon: Detective Pikachu’ Solves Its Case, Not Its Narrative

Everyone knows Pokemon. You show someone an image of Pikachu, and there’s a good chance they’ll be able to recognize it. Even Werner Herzog is aware of them. They are a cultural phenomena spanning video games, television, trading cards, and more, giving birth to an insatiable desire to catch ‘em all worldwide. Now we have a live action feature film: Detective Pikachu. Though this is not the first time Pokemon has seen the big screen, it is the first time it has taken on tentpole status.

You can make the claim that this film is the best video game movie ever made, but to take that title, you don’t have to do much. Detective Pikachu pretty much needed to be average in order to clear the threshold and climb to the top of the pedestal, and that’s exactly what it is While Detective Pikachu is enjoyable, it isn’t perfect.The allure of pokemon will get you in the theater, but know now that the film’s narrative alone prevents Detective Pikachu from being nothing more than an all around average film with a few bright spots.

One of the more admirable aspects of the film is how it pulls inspiration from past noirs to build its aesthetic. Being that our protagonists are detectives, it only seems fitting, and surprisingly, the genre applies itself well to the world of ‘pocket monsters.’ Not as dark and seedy as the best noirs — we are dealing with a kid-friendly property after all—, but it channels its essence in a way that melds well with the comedic direction it takes, akin to something like The Nice Guys though not as sexual. 

From the 1940 noir film that plays on the TV to the neon-lit streets of Ryme City to the playful takes on genre tropes, the film wears its influences on its sleeve. Plus, in an utterly unconventional studio decision, the film is even shot on actual film to maintain its aesthetic vibe, giving it subtle textural grain that is reminiscent of the noirs of the past. Creative decisions culminate in a consistent visual style that is surprisingly genuine. Not riffing on the genre and not using it as a crutch, but rather applying it to a narrative that suits it. 

For all its effort to replicate the noir aesthetic, the narrative itself is, well … overt. The buy in for this mystery is low, but as the story unfolds and the conspiracy unravels, it becomes progressively more absurd —when you get to the holograms, you’ll know what I mean. The film will sit you down and spoon feed you information in order to set up the next ten to fifteen minutes of antics until your next information dump. The hand holding is so egregious that ____’s arc feels underdeveloped; the lack of agency comes at the hand of self-explanation, random developments, and necessitated narrative progression which ultimately results in a lead character that is more or less a pawn with surface level characterization.

I’ll leave it unspecified, however, there’s one scene in the trailer that seems seminal to the film, but it’s completely inconsequential and could be entirely cut, only made even worse by the fact that nothing in that scene comes up later. The inclusion of moments like these and then making up for narrative shortfalls with information dumps is where the narrative feels lazy — prioritizing spectacle over logical narrative efficiency. To see a narrative devolve and become weighed down by its own doing is disappointing, especially when it starts off so well. 

Not to sign off on the narrative, but it is Pokemon. Some people may decide to forgive the narrative shortcuts the film takes just so they can see Ryan Reynolds voice a chonky Pikachu drink coffee and solve a conspiracy. And that may be a valid point for the fans. There is some worth in that. Feel free to see it for all the pocket monsters, see it for all the cute monsters running around in a noir setting, but just know that this isn’t a Double Indemnity level story.