Full disclosure-I know next to nothing about the blockbuster franchise that is Pokémon. Outside of recalling one or two character names, and having friends over the years ceaselessly trade those ever-popular cards and sessions of Pokémon Go, I truly can’t say for sure what exactly Pokémon is. Blame it on being born an era before the beloved video game & anime made their way to the United States, or on my complete lack of interest. Either way, I consider myself almost completely uninformed as to the matter of Pokémon.
I suppose, then, this might make me a unique candidate for a viewing of the newly-released Pokémon Detective Pikachu, as I can approach it objectively as opposed to the rabid fanbase who have as of late been hailing the film as a nostalgic triumph. Detective Pikachu, which is also based on an eponymous video game, takes place in an alternate reality where Pokémon live alongside humans, and when one in particular, Tim (Justice Smith), comes into contact with a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) he can understand as opposed to the rest of the world which cannot, the two subsequently team up to find the former’s missing father. Pokémon, for those entirely unaware, are fictional creatures who apparently exist solely to battle one another, or something along those lines. Also, Pikachu is a type of Pokémon-I realize research would benefit me greatly in both of the aforementioned departments, and in my lack of awareness of what happens in the world of Pokémon and I fully accept the hate from the countless supporters of this media giant. To you, I tip my battered hat.
As for the movie, and the source material on which it’s based, it’s a silly concept, and not too terribly original, but much like the recent Tolkien merely serves as a vehicle in which the star, arguably Reynolds, can somewhat shine. As the voice of Pikachu, Reynolds again bring his signature personality to the role, somehow a perfect choice for such an iconic character-it’s not all that far removed from Deadpool, and that’s a great thing, as Detective Pikachu sees Reynolds spouting off the film’s best lines and a large amount that are disappointingly average at best. Oddly, I felt that there wasn’t enough of Reynolds/Pikachu. Screentime, for some reason, is given generously to Justice Smith, who falls flat with a character who doesn’t seem to go anywhere in terms of character development-the estrangement he’s undergone from his father is largely unexplored and, sadly, Smith mostly lacks any real chemistry with Pikachu, from the cliché moments when the two initially team up to the slow, sullen scenes that try to show them attempting to bond. It’s not a failing in regards to modern film being unable to properly showcase how to interact with a character who’s not physically present on set – the better part of the past few decades have seen more competent directors execute this feat much better. Even 1996’s Dragonheart pulled it off far more smoothly.
Unfortunately, whether it’s a casting failure, bad acting or a bizarre combination of both, the remainder of the lead roles continue to serve as a reminder that Detective Pikachu apparently exists as nothing more than another vehicle for Ryan Reynolds’ specific talents in terms of vocal delivery. Kathryn Newton as Lucy, a wannabe newswoman who assists Tim in his quest while attempting to pursue her own career aspirations somehow operates as a cliché reporter from the 1930s mixed with the chutzpah of someone who’s barely acted previously. Ken Watanabe’s few scenes as Tim’s father’s boss aren’t at all different from anything he’s done in 2014’s Godzilla or even Inception, while Bill Nighy suffers a similar fate, playing the head of a media conglomerate with a truly baffling character arc, an unspecified degenerative disease and intentions that don’t make any sense. Even Chris Geere, who I’m told is quite hilarious on You’re the Worst, was apparently given direction that involves alternating between mustache-twirling, rapid fire, weakly villainous line delivery and scenes that see him amusingly smirking into the camera. Though the latter act is eventually explained, it doesn’t save these moments from looking any less ridiculous.
Let’s circle back to the premise, which is where the film’s real problems lie. I’ve touched on the core path down which Detective Pikachu travels, but for a movie that blends CG, live action and a simple plot overall, the film sets about layer upon layer of exposition from the mouths of nearly everyone in the cast, much of which revolves around overly complicated trajectories that are, honestly, tremendously hard to follow. The opening scene plunges immediately into the deep end as we follow Tim and a companion (Karan Soni) as they attempt to catch a Pokémon, a moment where the movie could have started off on the right foot by explaining why this is taking place but does the exact opposite, treating audiences outside of the fan community as if they already know precisely why this is occurring. Later, a plotline revolving around a street drug that causes aggression in Pokémon may have been elaborated on as to where it originated, as well as if it caused Tim’s sudden understanding of Pikachu’s language, in addition to the drug’s eventual source-whether I missed these moments entirely or if they found themselves buried under countless other side stories, I’m sure I don’t know. Detective Pikachu’s team of writers clearly represent an example of too many cooks obliterating the stew, all of whom allow the film to descend into a Lego Movie ripoff of a final act that loads in a number of last minute twist developments, none of which make any sense, ultimately a horrible exercise in the work of a crew of filmmakers that appear to not know how to properly end a film.
This film also stands as an example of inside jokes and fan service that will presumably cause many a Team Pokémon member to smile, but leave the rest of the audience in a head-scratchingly undesirable state-though one probably doesn’t need to be familiar with the source material to see Detective Pikachu, it clearly doesn’t hurt at all. An argument could be made that the animation works, but at the end of the day it isn’t that far off from 1999’s The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, even though many of the characters are, admittedly, still downright adorable – I couldn’t help but be quite taken by ol’ Psyduck or Mr. Mime. Unfortunately, further problems manifest themselves in Henry Jackman’s score-once a composer I’d rabidly defend, his output as of late seems to lack in more areas than one, with the soundtrack he provides Detective Pikachu attempting to sound like a video game, rich in electronic bleeps and bloops, that can’t help but sound like a reject from his work on the Wreck-It Ralph franchise.
Director Rob Letterman, who’s disappointing career has included previous forays into animation in addition to misfires such as the recent adaptations of Goosebumps and Gulliver’s Travels, should count his blessings for the fortunate casting of Ryan Reynolds, literally the only reason anyone should see this movie. The endless list of issues obscure whether Pokémon Detective Pikachu was even technically made with any shred of competency, and it remains unclear for what audience this film was made, but in going in with next to no expectations outside of positive pre-release buzz, I suppose it’s hard to be that upset. That said, with a terrible supporting cast, indecipherable story-line, lackluster score and special effects that shouldn’t turn anyone’s heads, this is one summer blockbuster that, to paraphrase the familiar catchphrase that bookends the Pokémon franchise, audiences shouldn’t catch.