If the phrase Pokémon Detective Pikachu sounds like indecipherable gobbledygook, then you’re clearly not one of the millions of people devoted to the global Pokémon phenomenon, which encompasses video games, trading cards, toys, books, school supplies, a series of animated movies, and now, a live-action blockbuster extravaganza starring Ryan Reynolds. If long ago you wrote off this media colossus as just a fad, I can’t blame you — I did, too, figuring that, like Chia Pets or Google Plus, it was a silly waste of time that would eventually go away. But I was wrong: Going strong after nearly 25 years, Pokémon reportedly earns $1.5 billion annually, and work has already begun on a Detective Pikachu 2.
All of this would be noteworthy if Detective Pikachu wasn’t terribly mediocre. Despite some bold visual touches and Reynolds’ smart-ass presence as the voice of Pikachu, the movie feels too much like every other franchise-starting origin film, setting up a world and establishing the central characters so that we (hopefully) lust for future installments. What went wrong? To answer that question — and to help the Pokémon deficient — I decided to rank the three words in the movie’s title in ascending order of their importance to the overall film. If you happen to be stuck at the world’s worst dinner party and need to sound knowledgeable about Pokémon arcana, then quickly run to the bathroom and read this article. I suffered through this movie so you didn’t have to.
3) Detective. Detective Pikachu is based on a 2016 video game in which you help Pikachu solve mysteries.
I don’t play video games, but this kind I especially find tedious: You have to go around finding clues and asking random characters questions in order to advance the plot. I suppose this constitutes detective work, but it’s not particularly exciting.
The movie sticks with the game’s central conceit: Tim (Justice Smith) goes looking for his missing detective father, joined by his dad’s partner Pikachu, who conveniently has amnesia and can’t remember a thing. Consequently, a lot of Detective Pikachu is structured like a noir in which our heroes must travel through the dark underbelly of Ryme City trying to get to the bottom of this mystery.
No matter what your expectations are for a Detective Pikachu movie, detecting is this film’s least-interesting element. Basically, this is the film’s plot: They go one place, learn something, go some other place, learn more stuff. Sure, that’s essentially the same narrative for classics like Chinatown, too, but here the clues are mostly excuses for big action set pieces, overblown holographic flashback sequences and strained comedy. Detective Pikachu is essentially a hangout movie that’s sometimes interrupted by detective work. When you finally find out what happened, and why, it’s pretty underwhelming. It’s almost as if movies based on video games end up being pretty terrible story-wise.
2) Pokémon. A few weeks ago while waiting for my press screening of Detective Pikachu to begin, my wife and I met a guy who seemed pretty familiar with Pokémon lore. “You know,” he told us knowingly, “the word is actually short for ‘pocket monster.’”
I have never played Pokémon. I vaguely remember the franchise’s slogan — something about how it’s vitally important to obtain them all — but otherwise my Pokémon scholarship is close to nil. Yet even I knew that Pokémon is short for “pocket monster.” My wife didn’t, though, so she was impressed.
Seeing a movie like Detective Pikachu is an interesting challenge for a film critic. I don’t think I have to read a novel that a movie is based on — let the movie be its own thing, I say — but with a cultural sensation like Pokémon, it seemed imperative to have some understanding of the world. Otherwise, I’d risk missing a ton of inside jokes or, worse, have no idea what the hell was going on.
My due diligence before the screening didn’t leave me feeling I’d wasted my life not paying more attention to Pokémon. It’s really easy to be snide about Pokémon, which is probably the epitome of a popular thing that’s utterly ridiculous to anyone not in its orbit, but I actually think the film does a decent job of making this peculiar universe appealing to non-fans like me. Sorta like Who Framed Roger Rabbit — or, far less effectively, The Happytime Murders — Detective Pikachu imagines a landscape where all these critters live alongside human beings. Polygon cataloged all the Pokémon characters who make a cameo in the film, but for the uninitiated, as long as you know Pikachu, Psyduck and Mewtwo, you’ll basically be fine.
As for the photorealistic CG, it’s actually pretty remarkable… even if Psyduck is a little nightmare fuel-y.
1) Pikachu. The 2016 video game gave us a Pikachu who was more of a hardboiled detective, as opposed to the happy, lovable … mouse? … that we’d come to know. (Turns out, by the way, that he’s not a mouse: Recently, it was revealed that Pikachu’s design was actually inspired by a squirrel.) For years, Pikachu was a squeezable little ball of fur that had the ability to shoot lightning and conduct electricity, making it the absolute worst pet imaginable for a young child. Turning lil’ Pikachu into a crusty gumshoe for the video game was clever, and the movie doubles-down on that conceit by getting Reynolds to portray Pikachu through motion-capture.
It’s funny to think that, even though Reynolds is a good-looking guy, his biggest movies have involved audiences barely seeing him. Through most of the Deadpool films, he’s just a voice. (Sure, he’s inside the suit, but his face is completely covered.) Ironically, what’s made him a massive star are the wisecracks he throws out with that sarcastic deadpan of his. Honestly, he could look like you or me and do the exact same job.
Nevertheless, Reynolds is easily the best part of Detective Pikachu, which is a problem because he’s not very good at all. Is it funny to see Pikachu wear a Sherlock Holmes hat while sipping a cup of coffee, his adorable eyes peering out? Oh, absolutely. But so much of what Pikachu says feels like something that Reynolds winged on set — as if director Rob Letterman let him riff as much as he wanted until something remotely amusing came out. But because this isn’t an R-rated Deadpool, Reynolds has to keep things clean — and a PG Reynolds simply isn’t as hilarious.
Truth is, Detective Pikachu needs Reynolds far more than he needs this movie. Detective Pikachu isn’t Green Lantern-level bad, but it rides the actor’s wise-guy coattails in such a shameless way that you’ll start wishing Reynolds had found something better to do with his time. I can probably spend the rest of my days happily never thinking about Pokémon again. I’m wondering if that’s how Reynolds will start feeling, too — at least until the inevitable sequel, of course.
Here are three other takeaways from Pokémon Detective Pikachu.
#1. Shooting a movie on 35mm is incredibly rare.
While sitting through the Detective Pikachu credits, I discovered a remarkable thing: This wall-to-wall effects film was shot on actual film. Not that long ago, all movies were shot on physical film, mostly 35mm, but the digital revolution that took hold around the turn of the century prompted directors and studios to focus on digital shooting. (The idea, among other things, was that digital was cheaper — and that it allowed filmmakers to manipulate the image more than they could with old-fashioned celluloid.) It’s gotten to the point that just about no Hollywood film is on 35mm anymore. But Detective Pikachu cinematographer John Mathieson (who shot Gladiator and Logan) insisted on it.
“Film hasn’t been made better by digital,” he told Newsweek earlier this month. “People are lazier, they don’t try as hard, don’t try things out. I find [digital] very difficult to use, especially these huge Marvel superhero films … It all goes in the computer and gets washed up. You don’t see the individuality of the photographer, and that’s a shame. It’s difficult to bring a look to a film that’s made by lots of people that’s gone through a big computer. That’s what they are, computers with lens attached to them.”
Debating film-versus-digital is the movie equivalent of the vinyl-versus-digital debate in music: Sure, the old-school medium is superior and warmer, but most people probably can’t tell the difference, so what’s the point in trying to argue with them? (And, yes, I realize that, with music, how it’s recorded is more important than the format in which you hear it. Leave me alone, audiophile nerds: I’m on your side.)
That said, Detective Pikachu looks really good, and when I realized it was shot on 35mm, I found myself thinking, “Oh, of course.” One of the things Mathieson wanted was a more “realistic” look, and while that seems ridiculous for a movie about pocket monsters, there’s a grittiness to the film that aids Detective Pikachu’s noir-ish tone. It’s a small thing, but if you care about visual minutiae like that, celluloid makes a difference.
Perhaps you’re wondering how rare it is to shoot on 35mm. Filmmaker’s Vadim Rizov does an annual list of film-shot releases, and in 2018 there were only about 24. Those include Suspiria, The Favourite, Widows, A Quiet Place, BlacKkKlansman and Mission: Impossible — Fallout. I wouldn’t have necessarily guessed all those movies, but with a few of them, it seemed pretty apparent they were shot on film. Digital is an incredible medium, but depending on the movie, 35mm really adds to the texture and tone of the story — it’s a feel thing as much as anything else.
On the one hand, I’m glad Mathieson stuck to his guns about 35mm. On the other, I’m not convinced Detective Pikachu deserved his loving care.
#2. The behind-the-scenes stories of the original Pokémon songs are kinda depressing.
They have uninspiring names like “Pokémon Theme” and “Pokérap,” but for those who grew up with the animated Pokémon series of the late 1990s, they’re cheesy-good anthems. Detective Pikachu satirizes the old Poké-songs, but in case you need some of that sweet nostalgia pumped into your ear, here are the originals:
God, these songs are terrible.
I was curious how the tracks were written, and it turns out they’re deeply depressing stories. Both were co-written by John Siegler, a bassist who’s worked with everyone from Hall & Oates to Meat Loaf to Cher. At the time, Siegler worked for a company that specialized in jingles and TV theme songs, and he and his writing partner John Loeffler were approached by the Pokémon people to come up with a theme that would hook American audiences. “We didn’t want it to sound like a nursery rhyme,” Siegler told Billboard in 2016. “But we wanted it to be so that the kids, who we were selling the show to, would feel like they weren’t listening to their parents’ Eric Clapton.”
Not that Siegler or Loeffler could make heads or tails out of what, exactly, this Pokémon series was supposed to be. “It was incomprehensible to us what the show was about,” Siegler said in 2017. “Finally, we talk a little bit, ‘Well, it’s about friendship, and you know, loyalty, and blah blah blah,’ and so we just wrote a song. … It was just some weirdo cartoon to us. It was just another gig. That’s all it was, it was just a gig and we did it.”
“Pokérap” started out just as unceremoniously, with the producers asking for a song that featured all the different Pokémon characters. Siegler obliged, although he doesn’t have much fondness for the song. “It’s definitely one of my least favorites,” Siegler told The Week five years ago. “It wasn’t really a song; it was a way of saying 150-odd Pokémon names, so it wasn’t particularly musically interesting to me. … It was just a groove — and people yelling Pokémon names.”
But despite his reservations, the songs — as well as everything else Pokémon-related — became sensations, helping to fatten his wallet. “I put my kids through college with that money,” he told Billboard, later adding, “I think if you wanted to get some complaints, you’d get them from the singers, who all signed buyout contracts… and then when the thing exploded were less than thrilled.”
Indeed, it sounds like the vocalists for “Pokémon Theme” and “Pokérap” got royally screwed. “Pokémon Theme” singer Jason Paige sued for royalties from different companies associated with the company, eventually reaching a settlement in 2000. And James “D-Train” Williams, who sang on “Pokérap,” remains unhappy with his compensation. “It’s a bittersweet pill to swallow,” he told The Week, “because I’m glad my children got to know that their dad did the ‘Pokérap.’ But on the same token, you didn’t make the same money that [others] did, and they didn’t seem to care.”
This is a very good reminder: Kids, don’t ever find out how your favorite childhood songs came together. It will just leave you feeling very sad.
#3. Would you like to see a bunch of people dressed up in Pikachu costumes dancing to N.W.A.?
Of course you would:
Thanks, John, for the tip.