‘Pokemon Detective Pikachu’ Review: Gotta Fan-Service ‘Em All
This story of a young man and his furry wisecracking detective friend is strictly for the Pokémaniacs — in the best and worst possible ways
★ ★ 1/2
Find the most intelligent three-year-old you know. It doesn’t have to be a genius-level prodigy, just the smartest toddler in the room. Now, explain quantum physics to him or her.
And then, when you’re done with that, find an adult. It’s a nebulous term, we agree. But aim for someone over the age of, say, 35. Probably college-educated. Possibly employed. This person doesn’t need to know how to get a great mortgage refinancing rate, but for the sake of parameters, they should be able to tell you who Zora Neale Hurston and Jimmy Carter are. Now, explain the Pokémon phenomenon to them. Take your time.
So who had a better grasp on the respective concepts by the end of all of this? Unrelated: please congratulate the three-year-old on nailing the whole Schrödinger’s cat thing.
There are certain aspects of Pokémon Detective Pikachu that don’t require a crash course in pocket monsterdom, naturally. You don’t need to know the difference between a squirtle and a sandslash to follow Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, the best thing about Netflix’s The Get Down), the son of an ace cop who’s tries to find his father’s killer. You don’t have to know the lyrics to the Pokémon theme song (“It’s you and me/I know it’s my destiny!”) to understand that Ryme City, the metropolis where these creatures live side by side with humans, is basically what you’d get if modern-day Tokyo had a three-way with Toontown and Blade Runner‘s future-shocked L.A. Or, for that matter, that the Murdoch-like tycoon (Bill Nighy) who built it and his son (You’re the Worst‘s Chris Geere) who runs its TV-news network both ooze corporate evil.
And you definitely don’t need a Ph.D in proper Menga Gengar training techniques to get the near-universal appeal of Pikachu, that furry yellow Pokémon who’s so preternaturally cute he can rot your teeth on sight, in a tiny little Sherlock Holmes hat and blessed with Ryan Reynolds’ sense of humor. We’ve all seen Deadpool so we know the Canadian’s tall-snark-and-handsome game is tight; letting him do his wiseacre riffing thing in the form of an adorably mischievous, coffee-addicted li’l guy feels so ideal for the vibe the seven credited writers (let’s assume the actual number of scribes involved is at least twice that) are going for that you wonder which came first concept-wise — making a live-action Pikachu movie or getting the star to voice him.
But it’s possible that someone totally unversed in the mythos surrounding the games, and manga, and movies, and trading cards, and whatever other form this pop-culture juggernaut has assumed since we started writing this sentence, might watch the first 10 to 15 minutes of this movie and have no fucking clue what’s going on. And even after you get a brief disclaimer explaining the whole trainer/balls/battles fundamentals before settling into a familiarly hardboiled, straight-outta-Chandler plot — Pikachu was the partner of Tim’s dad, they both suspect foul play but the Pokémon has lost his memory — you find yourself wondering why you should feel invested in any of this if you’re not already a Pokémaniac. There’s a saying that gets thrown around a lot these days, both defensively and derisively: “strictly for the fans.” Pokémon Detective Pikachu really is strictly for the fans, in the best and worst possible ways. If you live, eat, breathe and defecate this stuff, you may feel like seeing this world rendered in such photorealistic detail, and with such candy-colored hallucinogenic production design, is a dream come true. Everyone else is likely to feel like they’ve been mildly dosed.
So maybe there should be two reviews, one for and by the die-hards and one penned for confused moviegoers who might only see a generic detective storyline and Reynolds-wrapping loosely holding together a piece of franchise brand-extension. Really, if that notion does not delineate where we find ourselves now in the Blockbuster Year of Our Lord 2019, we don’t know what does. There are fans, and there is everyone else. We live in a landscape where every devotee demands his day and, if there’s money to be had, he will get it. Folks are either part of the onslaught, ready to debate every creative choice and force filmmakers to change something they don’t like and drag anyone who says anything less than unconditionally praiseworthy, or they’re left wondering what the appeal is. Pikachu Detective does not make it easy to get on board. It’s not here to convert — it’s here to preach to the already converted. You the viewer may choose this movie even if you aren’t a Pokéscholar. That doesn’t mean it’s willing to choose you.