This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
Sometime between the announcement of its existence and the release of its first trailer, the internet—or at least the part of the internet that goofs around endlessly on Twitter—decided that “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” was their new favorite movie. Despite the Pokémon cards and games mostly passing me by, to some extent I understood the obsession with this bizarre-looking movie where a super-adorable “pocket monster” rendered in weirdly realistic CG animation apparently solved some manner of crimes. “Unconventional and/or amateur detective” is one of my very favorite subgenres, and in the past twenty-plus years, I’ve enjoyed hard-boiled teenage detectives ("Brick," “Veronica Mars”); twentysomething slacker detectives (“Cold Weather”); plucky YA detectives (“Nancy Drew”); addled middle-aged stoner detectives (“The Big Lebowski”) and even toxically masculine conspiracy-theorist detectives (the recent “Under the Silver Lake”). So yes, of course, a movie with a cute little Pikachu wearing a cute little deerstalker hat, solving crimes in a neon-lit, noir-inflected city of humans and Pokémon has clear (if initially unexpected) appeal.
The sad reality of “Detective Pikachu,” though, is that it barely even tries to be a detective story. It has the structure of one—a young man (Justice Smith) partners up with a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who only he can understand, to figure out what happened to the kid’s dad, who was also the Pikachu’s mystery-solving partner—but it fails at being funny, exciting or creating a real sense of atmosphere before it has finally makes time to assemble its arbitrary and dull central mystery. There are obligatory Pokémon battle scenes, some generic skulking around a laboratory setting, and exposition-machine holograms that explain all of the plot details that the characters aren’t smart enough to ask about themselves. This is a movie that doesn’t seem to know or care about the difference between a mysterious disappearance and an actual death, and treats them interchangeably. It’s hard to build a strong mystery from there.
Even given the hype around the movie, disappointment that “Detective Pikachu” is not, in fact, a well-wrought murder mystery does not make a lot of sense, and is not a criticism I ever expected to make twenty years ago, when I saw “Pokémon: The First Movie” (it made a trippy double feature with “Being John Malkovich,” let me tell you). But while “Detective Pikachu” is, first and foremost, a kids’ adventure movie (and, just to reiterate, a pretty bad one on those terms), the whole noir-city-of-Pokémon idea is what caused so much fan excitement in the first place, so it’s fair to judge the movie on how well it executes its extremely high concept.
Not only that, but there is some precedent in the subgenre of kiddie noir, suggesting the movie needn’t have turned out this dumb or indifferent. The most obvious ancestor of “Detective Pikachu” is 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” set in a 1940s Los Angeles where cartoon stars and humans interact regularly, just like the Pokémon and humans do in “Pikachu”’s Ryme City (though of course, the animated characters in “Detective Pikachu” are not animated in the world of the movie). Coming anywhere close to the level of artistry and humor in that Robert Zemeckis spoof/noir pastiche is a tall order, but the most disappointing aspect of the new movie is how it feels like the filmmakers have certainly heard of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” but maybe not watched it recently, or at all. All of its noir-ish archetypes, like the fast-talking dame played by Kathryn Newton, feel like they’ve been drawn from memory.
Doubtless that for hardcore genre aficionados, “Roger Rabbit” isn’t exactly a note-perfect imitation, either; Zemeckis has too much of his own screwball energy to make an exacting pastiche. But even the effort to toy with detective-movie tropes and give them an animated, often kid-friendly twist can make a huge difference. A movie like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” in addition to being its own achievement with some satirical ideas about how Los Angeles has changed over the years, can function as a gateway movie, drawing in kids interested in Mickey Mouse sharing a scene with Bugs Bunny for the first time, and leaving them with an imprinted appreciation for detective fiction. (It sure worked on me, anyway; “Roger Rabbit” was basically my “Star Wars” at age eight, and probably a good part of why I still get excited about detective pictures today.)
In its attention to Los Angeles conspiracies, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” takes a few (admittedly vague) cues from “Chinatown,” a movie that has served as an unlikely inspiration for another PG-rated kid-targeted movie: Gore Verbinski’s bizarre, delightful animated feature “Rango.” This movie, in which Johnny Depp plays a stranded chameleon who gets caught up in a series of western stand-offs as well as a conspiracy involving a small town’s water supply, cribs more directly from the Roman Polanski film in some ways, even though Rango isn’t a detective and the setting isn’t urban. Disney’s “Zootopia,” on the other hand, nixes the private-eye aspect (the lead character is a bunny cop), but goes all-in on the bustling metropolis that hides nefarious secrets.
The central mystery in “Zootopia” doesn’t contain any real surprises; its twists feel obligatory and telegraphed, very much designed for kids who haven’t experienced plot twists before rather than their more savvy guardians. But the movie’s commentary on sociological relationships in its big city is more than clever enough to make up for a disappointing puzzle. It at least gets the mechanics of the mystery right, with a few interesting clues and connections supplied by the bunny cop and con-artist fox who work together to solve the case. “Zootopia” feels like it could lead its young viewers to any number of options as they get older: mysteries, cop movies, portraits of social unrest, stories about close but platonic friendship, that Criterion Channel series on Columbia Noir. In contrast, “Detective Pikachu” feels designed to lead kids in a circle, back to more Pokémon.
This is by no means uncommon in the field of summer blockbusters; one problem about some of the later-period Marvel movies, good as they can be, is how studiously they avoid being about anything but the insular particulars of the Marvel Universe. But as frustrating as it is to hear filmmakers compare the latest Marvel movie to “Three Days of the Condor,” “Robocop,” “Midnight Run,” or some other classic it barely resembles, it’s more galling to watch “Detective Pikachu” promise kids (and adult fans!) a detective story in which humans and Pokémon collide in weird, interesting ways on the streets of a stylized, futuristic city ... and then deliver a semi-cute, barely-functional story about a bland kid fumbling through an investigation with about two suspects, expecting fans to delight in all of the Pokémon cameos (and, presumably, order some affiliated merchandise). As it turns out, the whole movie is a red herring.
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