When The Formula Turns Insane: ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ Hits A New Level Of Bizarre

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The idea of a movie based on a videogame, or a live-action version of a cartoon (both categories to which Pokémon Detective Pikachu belong), are painfully mundane; capitalism at its most uninspired. Yet experienced as a stand-alone film, Detective Pikachu might be one of the weirder movies ever made.

Partly that’s due to the weirdness of the Pokémon concept in general, which gets pretty dark the moment you put any thought into it beyond “Aww, cute cat thing!” It exists in a world where humans coexist alongside cute/possibly dangerous cartoon monsters. If a human can trap a monster in a spherical prison, the human becomes that monster’s “trainer,” and can make his monster fight other people’s monsters. It’s sort of like a Hello Kitty version of the Mandingo fights in Django Unchained. Except that supposedly the pokémon really want to fight, and the human trainers just helping them “evolve” into their final form. So, sort of like Mandingo fights plus eugenics, I guess.

In Detective Pikachu, Justice Smith plays Tim Goodman, a young adult traveling to Ryme City to investigate the death of his estranged, detective father. Unlike almost everyone he meets, Tim doesn’t have a Pokémon sidekick, which in this universe is apparently like not having a girlfriend, only worse. In an early scene, Tim tries to capture a poké (or is it a mon?) in his spherical prison, but the pokémon escapes. “It wasn’t meant to be,” Tim’s friend consoles, because apparently you can only imprison the pokémon with whom you share a cosmic, emotional connection. Which sounds sort of like how Goop might’ve justified colonialism.

In Ryme City, Tim meets his father’s best friend on the force, Yoshida, played by Ken Watanabe, and his father’s partner, Pikachu. I’m still a little unclear on whether the partner is Pikachu, or a Pikachu, whether these pokémon are individuals or simply members of individual pokémon racial categories, from charizard to jiggly puff, all with a set of general characteristics. Anyway, Tim discovers, to his surprise, that he can actually understand what Pikachu is saying. This is apparently a big deal, because under normal circumstances, pokémen tend to just say their name or their catchphrase, like the hype man in an 80s rap — “charmander!” and “Pika pika!” and so forth.

Despite the coup of being able to converse with Tim in plain English, the complication is that Pikachu also has amnesia, and thus can’t remember what happened to Tim’s father or what investigation they were working on at the time. The plot thickens! Thus making Detective Pikachu a sort of live-action cartoon/videogame adaptation with elements of The Happytime Murders and Memento. Phew. It’s actually kind of incredible that something could be simultaneously so formulaic and so bizarre.

Tim and talking Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, get drawn further and further into this murder mystery, by which I mean mostly a series of CGI Things That Keep Happening. The clues, the crime, and the cover-up, you see, are all largely nonsensical. Who wants what and why? This I know not.

The players in this plot include a plucky cub reporter, played by Kathryn Newton, and the father-son ownership team behind a media conglomerate, played by Bill Nighy (father) and Chris Geere (son). The two are on the outs, it turns out, because one of them has an “evil” plan to put human brains inside Pokémon bodies. That this plan is evil is related as if it’s self-explanatory. Apparently mprisoning the pokémon in a spherical pocket prison and making them fight is totally chill but a body swap is beyond the pale. Honestly, it’s hard to understand the moral stakes of this universe.

We’re also asked to care about a man (Tim’s father) whom we know virtually nothing about and haven’t seen for the entire movie. He became estranged from Tim on account of getting way too into his job as a Pokémon detective. Pikachu, meanwhile, is very cute, but due to his amnesia he has apparently forgotten how to summon electricity with his tail and use any of the powers we know and love him for thanks to hours of playing Super Smash Bros. So we spend almost the entire movie waiting in vain for Pikachu to do the thing that Pikachu does. Talk about blue poké balls.

I will grant Detective Pikachu this: it’s extremely strange. Just not in the inspired way we were hoping for. It’s not very funny but it does make me smile a bit just knowing something this weird exists.

‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ opens in theaters this weekend. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.