How to process Detective Pikachu’s review scores.
After years of hype and a meme filled marketing scheme, Detective Pikachu has finally hit theaters. And if you look at the reviews… man do they run a gamut of thoughts.
On one hand, gaming personalities love it. Sites like Kotaku and IGN have given the film high praise despite pointing out key flaws. Heck, even YouTubers who know nothing about Pokémon outside of Super Smash Bros like it. Meanwhile, mainstream critics tell a slightly different story.
Detective Pikachu’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 64% technically does qualify it for the coveted “first good video game movie” title. However, the people who didn’t like it really didn’t like it. Of the site’s “top critics,” Adam Graham of Detroit News compares Ryan Reynolds’ performance as Pikachu to “orange juice and toothpaste.” James Berardinelli calls the movie a “soulless feature-length example of product placement.” Somehow still a 2/4 star movie in the same review, but I’m not here to critique grading curves.
The point is, a number of mainstream critics seem to have issues with Detective Pikachu. We saw a similar issue with Alita: Battle Angel, and we’re here to set the record straight again. Because unlike what we saw with Alita, Detective Pikachu has opened multiple cans of worms that might muddy the way you read its reviews.
First things first, did I like it?
Before I get too deep into how right or wrong critics are, I’ve got to clarify my own stance on the movie.
In short, would I recommend Detective Pikachu? Why yes, yes I would. Also, no human on this planet should be surprised that I enjoyed Detective Pikachu. One does not write dozens of articles about Pokémon and dislike Detective Pikachu. One does not literally name Pokémon Red in their writer’s profile and dislike Detective Pikachu. One does not spend their life waiting for an awesome live action Pokémon movie, get one where the main character’s name is also Tim, and not enjoy Detective Pikachu. This movie would have to be a disaster for me to get no enjoyment out of it.
However, even I can tell you Detective Pikachu isn’t a perfect film. Some of my criticisms actually match up with the critics! While Reynalds is great as Pikachu, Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton’s performances were hit and miss. Don’t get me wrong, I love how Newton’s introduction as Lucy is ridiculously anime, but I could see that being off-putting to a general audience. The film’s also got some jarring pacing issues at times. Scenes are lumped together without clear cohesion through the first half of the film. The story’s easy to follow, but I wasn’t always there for the intended emotional impacts. The film still connects in the ways that count, but more on that later.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot about Detective Pikachu to gush about. But there’s also enough that’s “off” that I don’t disparage critics for digging into it a bit. That said, when it comes to some of the more common criticisms of the movie… I’ve got some issues.
Where the critics are sort of… just wrong?
Look, there’s no “objectively good” movie. You can dislike a movie that everyone likes and vice versa. That said, I do think certain reviews of the film have been written in poor faith.
First, a common thread of criticism is that Detective Pikachu makes no sense if you aren’t already familiar with Pokémon. Now, credit to Ben Kenigsberg’s critique in The New York Times. He argues that the story could be followed “by even those with the shortest attention spans,” and I’m surprised that’s not the common criticism.
Detective Pikachu spells out its plot very clearly and doesn’t rely on any preexisting knowledge to do it. In only two instances did I feel preexisting knowledge helped: one minor detail about Greninja that helped a couple shots make sense, and one twist near the end that’s otherwise very subtly foreshadowed to the viewer. Still, the broad strokes of the movie should be clear to even the most Poké-oblivious adult who’s at least trying to pay attention.
Second is the assertion that the movie is a “soulless money grab.” This one baffles me because… I mean, sure, you could go down that route. But then you’d have to say Star Wars is a money grab for introducing new characters that become toys in each movie. Or the critically acclaimed Marvel movies are money grabs because they advertise comics. Detective Pikachu really doesn’t try to sell anything to its target audience. Moreover, Detective Pikachu has been so hyped because of how much it departs from the standard clean and wholesome Pokémon world (while keeping a PG rating). This is a criticism that exists as an excuse to write the movie – and the entire franchise – off without actually exploring the movie’s merits with an open mind.
The issue of the “target audience.”
All of that said, here’s the dilemma. Back when I discussed this issue with Alita, I said you shouldn’t write off critics that disagree with you. After all, their opinions are still helpful to potential audiences that “don’t get” the source material either. That’s still true here, but Detective Pikachu paints this critical landscape in a particularly perplexing light.
Anyone who is looking to see this movie has some relationship to Pokémon. Even someone who has no interest in collectibles or video games has at least heard of the franchise and probably has an opinion on it. Otherwise, they’d be going to see the movie with a friend or a child. In other words, the people who dislike or are indifferent to Pokémon probably aren’t looking to see Detective Pikachu anyway. Or if they are, it’s a strict minority.
This is obviously different for critics. They watch and review movies they aren’t interested in all the time because it’s their job. But the end result is a variety of reviews that does not match what an interested viewer is looking for. Even if a disinterested parent is going to the film, they’re probably more invested in finding out if their child will like the movie.
In other words, critics who have an active distaste for Pokémon and its respective fans probably shouldn’t be reviewing the film. But keep in mind that the film’s issues – despite being forgivable to fans – are going to be glaring sticking points for critics forced to see the movie. There’s no right answer in how to properly review a movie with such a clear target audience in mind, but in the meantime, at least take the Rotten Tomatoes score with a grain of salt.
Here’s the heart of Detective Pikachu.
The real reason why more Pokémon fans should be reviewing Detective Pikachu is that they’re the ones who will understand the full weight of the movie’s underlying themes.
Contrary to what some critics believe, Pokémon isn’t a “kids” franchise anymore. Kids do enjoy it, but so do adults who first played the games in the 90s. Nowadays, these former players have jobs, spouses, and children who they can pass on their love of Pokémon to. You can see the effort to capture this audience in last year’s Pokémon Let’s Go. Heck, the game’s creators hoped parents familiar with the original games could help their children play it. Pokémon has always been a social experience, and for the first time, we’re witnessing the franchise try to bridge the old guard with brand new young Pokémon fans.
Detective Pikachu is a story about a boy trying to find his father. And while they’ve had trouble connecting in the past, we see a common link emerge for the first time: Pikachu. The same Pikachu that Tim’s father loved is now placed into the care of Tim, and through this friendship, Tim is able to reconcile the relationship with his father that was cut short. For former trainers who are taking their children to see Detective Pikachu, this is the meaning that will hit home to them. The movie doesn’t want parents to buy more Pokémon games for their children. The movie wants them to play together.
Detective Pikachu isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little lowbrow at times, and hopefully the planned sequel can bring the concept of Ryme City to its full potential. But if you’re a Pokémon fan worried about the mixed reviews, should you see Detective Pikachu? Yes, yes you should.