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Detective Pikachu (Movie Review)

An Entertaining Kids Movie with A Spoonful of Charm but Not Much Else.

About the Film

Pokémon are everywhere. This is true literally (as you read this, there are people wandering around a Wal-Mart parking lot with their iPhones trying to “catch them all”), but also figuratively. The Pokémon brand is the highest-grossing media franchise in history having earned over $90 billion. To put that in perspective, Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe have earned $97 billion combined. Clearly something about this intellectual property has captivated people in ways that few others have.    

By way of full disclosure, the extent of my Pokémon knowledge is the few months I spent playing the original Gameboy game over 20 years ago. As such, my experience was undoubtedly different than a hardcore fan that knows all the ins-and-outs of the source material. That said, the one word that best sums up my feelings after leaving the theater is indifferent. The film had the potential to be really great. It also had the potential of being a mind-numbing disaster. In the end, it was neither. Detective Pikachu is no more or less than a harmless and mildly entertaining kids movie. The film is like a 90s Saturday morning cartoon with a summer blockbuster budget—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  

For Consideration

On the Surface—(Profanity, Sexual content, violence, etc.).

There are a couple of minor profanities (words that start with D and H). There are also a few instances of tame but crude humor.   

Beneath the Surface— (Themes, philosophical messages, worldview, etc.)

  1. Living in Harmony with Others

Detective Pikachu has the thematic subtly of an airplane writing smoke words in the sky. The film’s central message is the importance of living harmoniously with others. The film does not so much make you feel or experience this theme; rather, it directly tells it to you. Any time the story wants to get its message across, the script simply has a character verbalize it for the audience.  

The movie aims for what Zootopia accomplished in 2016, by depicting a world where all people (and their animal friends/pets) live in a peaceful utopia together; working for the greater good. This is an important and timely message, but the film can’t figure out how to actually communicate it. For example, the movie clearly shows the benefits that Pokémon provide for the humans but does not explain what the Pokémon gain from the partnership or why they wouldn’t be better off living free in the wild rather than performing human tasks for us. In short, the film tells the audience a commendable message, but does very little to convince them to believe it.

2. Self-Evolution and Improvement

Another central theme throughout the movie is the need to evolve into a better version of ourselves. The film attempts to communicate this by contrasting the Pokémon and the humans. Just as the Pokémon evolve (the film does not make clear how they do this or what this means, but we are told that they do), humans are also intended to grow and improve. The primary tension in the story centers on what this means and how it is accomplished. As with the earlier theme, however, the message becomes diluted and lost in the overload of spectacle. The main characters have their struggles established at the start of the film and by the end of the film they have overcome these struggles, but there is very little in between those two points to justify or warrant that character growth. Detective Pikachu has good intentions and an interesting sandbox to play in, but simply lacks the storytelling proficiency to elevate above mediocracy.     

Final Verdict

Detective Pikachu is like a bag of Cheetos—tasty enough to grab a handful at the occasional party, but too bland to ever crave or intentionally seek them out at the grocery store. It is by no means a good film, but neither is it a dumpster fire. In the end, the film merely is. I enjoyed it far more than I expected too. It will almost surely be forgotten within a week or two (if not by Monday), but there is nothing offensive or off-putting about it. Pokémon fans will no doubt get some joy from seeing the world come to life, and younger kids should be entertained by the cute and bizarre varieties of Pokémon. Anyone looking for a deeper and more substantive experience, however, should look elsewhere. Then again, this is not Citizen Kane. This is a movie where one of its primary protagonists is a furry yellow rodent who wears a hat, shoots lightning from its tail, and solves mysteries. The movie is 2 hours of harmless and diverting entertainment, but that’s really all it needs to be.

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