This past weekend marked the release of Hollywood’s most ambitious live-action production to-date. No, not the Lion King. That comes out in July. Not Aladdin either, though you’re getting warmer. I’m talking about Detective Pikachu.
Starring Hollywood darling Ryan Reynolds and new-to-the-spotlight Justice Smith, Detective Pikachu is a delightful, action-packed romp in the Pokémon universe, and sets the stage for the next big cinematic universe. Brace yourselves, nerds, because it’s going to be beautiful.
Hype aside, the movie was… acceptable. It was trying to cover a very large demographic, from young children to adult fans, longtime Pokémon trainers and the newly initiated, and while it balanced these groups well, it left a lot to be desired at the same time. For those unaware, the movie follows the rough plot of the Nintendo 3DS game Detective Pikachu, in which a young man named Tim teams up with a talking Pikachu to find his missing father. While the story itself held up OK, the writing, pacing, and acting certainly dragged it down.
From this point on, there will be **SPOILERS**, but you can watch the “full movie” here if you really want.
The biggest issue I had with Detective Pikachu was that they spent more time telling than showing. The plot moved at a steady enough pace, but there were times when we were left to puzzle over the plot’s direction or whatever was meant to be happening next until one of the main characters figured it out and told us. This wasn’t exclusively the case, but it came up often enough to take me out of the experience. The trouble is, though that these instances would have flown under the radar if it were a more traditional children’s movie because a kid won’t question why they feel the need to explain why a character is upset, confused or scared. We don’t Tim to tell us he’s missed five calls from the Rhyme City police department, they could have shown it on his phone instead, but because the studio needed to balance the needs of the masses, we got a movie that may have been a bit dumbed down, but was nonetheless functional. In short, the clunky writing and questionable plot puddles can be chalked up to it being aimed at children as much, if not more so, than adult fans, and yet it still covered both bases in equal measure.
I’m not sure I can excuse the acting with bad writing, however. Let me preface by saying that I don’t think these young actors are bad. This was just one project of what will hopefully be many, and we can’t begin to know what the directors on the scene asked of them personally. That being said, there were times when I felt more cringe, or worse, apathy, during scenes that could have been handled much smoother, not in terms of content, but in terms of execution. Tim felt a bit hollow to me, as an adult viewer, primarily because, while an adult himself, he played more like an angsty youngster, more akin to many of the franchise’s digital protagonists. He wasn’t throwing tantrums or running scared all the time, and he had a lot more agency than I expected, but his motivations were never really clear, outside of feeling guilty for not being close to his dad before he disappeared. We never found out why he was so against having his own Pokémon, and they never explained why he gave up his dreams of becoming a trainer. Sure, his mother’s untimely death put a damper on his getting a Pokémon on his 10th birthday like every other kid, but his grief wasn’t played into enough to be a believable reason for not just waiting for a more convenient time.
If they had shown how much it had impacted him, or maybe mentioned that he didn’t want to become a trainer because the idea reminded him of his mom and the reason he never moved past it was that he still wasn’t over it, then it might have made more sense. To me, it felt more like he was avoiding an inconvenience than avoiding his feelings, and I can’t tell if that was because of the writing, or Justice Smith. Kathryn Newton also struggled under the constraints of this movie, but I disliked her character more for the writing than her acting. She played a typical movie reporter, eager to get the scoop even when it defies common sense. Maybe I was just too distracted by her foolhardiness to notice how she expressed herself, but I choose to believe she and Justice just did the best they could with what they were given. I hate to be the one to say it, but I think, despite being a 2-foot tall mouse creature, Ryan Reynolds stole the show in nearly every scene he was in. I spent more time paying attention to him that I did everyone else. His writing wasn’t super either, but I didn’t notice it much outside of a few really cheesy moments, because Ryan really brought it to the table. He’s just a big personality in general, though, which might be why he overpowered everyone. That being said, these characters weren’t unwatchable. Tolerable, sometimes even funny, but I wasn’t blown away. While the acting wasn’t necessarily bad, it definitely could have been better, stronger, more present, and that alone might have saved this movie from a lot of critical ire.
One area where this movie did not disappoint, however, was in the graphics. Many people were initially put off by the idea and teasers for realistic Pokémon designs, and I’ll admit when I first saw the trailer all those months ago, I too was concerned, but that fear was completely erased the moment the movie started. There were several establishing shots at the very start of the movie, which I’d wished they’d sprinkled more throughout that resembled a David Attenborough nature documentary. Scenes of Pokémon in the wild, interacting with the modern world, and simply existing, under the guise of normalcy. When the first Pokémon crossed the screen, my heart was already won over, not just because of how they were narratively handled, interwoven into everyday society while also still being wild creatures, but because visually, they felt as close to real as I think they could have been without being upsetting. In fact, seeing Charizard’s scales up close, or Bulbasaur’s big eyes, or Pikachu’s believably soft fur, brought me back to my childhood fantasies of becoming a Pokémon trainer in the real world. It felt like I was discovering these creatures all over again for the first time, and my heart soared every time I saw a new pocket monster cross the screen, even when they were just in the background. I realize that the realism may have been uncomfortable for some people, but in my mind, they did my boy Bulbasaur so good!! And I can’t image how they could have handled it better without cheapening the experience.
Overall, Detective Pikachu was an amazing theatrical experience. Sitting in that theater, I felt like I was rediscovering the franchise, seeing it for the first time all over again, and that’s a near impossible thing to capture on purpose. I don’t expect it to win any Oscars, but for what it could have been, and for what it was trying to do, it met all my expectations and more. It crossed generational boundaries, gave us a canon biracial protagonist, and didn’t cheapen itself with gratuity or unnecessary fluff. Detective Pikachu is everything Pokémon fans could have expected and hoped for and more, and while it’s far from perfect, it’s these imperfections that really breathe the (real)life back into this franchise.
Sarah Nowack is a senior professional writing major who is minoring in graphic design. Her days are spent haunting the local library, consuming copious amounts of coffee, playing unpopular video games, and making terrible puns. She can be found at @battlerouge on Twitter and @shiverbound on Instagram.