Detective Pikachu has one of those premises that is just so absurd, it may actually be a work of genius: A hardboiled talking Pikachu with a talent for solving crimes and pulling off a deerstalker hat? Ridiculous! Amazing! Add on to that the richly realized world of Pokémon, a franchise in which prepubescent children travel the world and battle magical creatures, and you’ve got potentially one of the strangest Hollywood blockbusters this year. But despite having all those weird ingredients, despite casting an incredibly game Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu, Detective Pikachu is surprisingly ordinary.
Detective Pikachu takes place in one of the most lavish, vibrant sci-fi worlds put to the screen, chock-full of memorable characters and creatures of the most imaginative (and adorable) design. But its problems stem from introducing us to that rich world from the eyes of a rather boring protagonist.
Detective Pikachu follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a former Pokémon trainer-turned-accountant who is as nondescript as his job title. But he has a reason for rejecting the vivacious world around him: When he was young his mother died, and with her, all of his childish dreams of being a Pokémon trainer. His friends attempt to pull him out of this humdrum existence by encouraging him to get a Pokémon partner, but Tim refuses to join this society where adorable Pokémon sidekicks are the norm. Tim is soon shocked out of his mundane life when he receives a call that his estranged father, Detective Harry Goodman, has been killed in a car crash alongside his Pokemon partner, a Pikachu. But when Tim arrives at his father’s apartment to settle his affairs, he learns that the Pikachu (Reynolds) is in fact very much alive and has adopted an ability to speak in snarky comebacks that only Tim can hear.
The film quickly turns into a lively buddy-cop comedy, as the duo team up to investigate a mysterious gaseous substance that can turn Pokémon rabid, a case that Harry was apparently closing in on before his death. Tim and Detective Pikachu’s fun, zippy dynamic helps energize a rote plot that is barely a step up from a Pokémon anime film.
Smith has the difficult job of endearing us to a brand new character that Pokémon fans are not familiar with (though there are several allusions to Ash and Red due to an abundant popularity of red snapback hats), and while he struggles a bit when he’s on his own, he settles into the role once he strikes up a rhythm with Reynolds’ fast-talking, caffeine-addicted Pikachu. Smith is excellent at acting constantly befuddled as he’s dragged into the world of underground Pokémon battles DJ’d by Diplo, and corporate conspiracies. But unsurprisingly, Reynolds is the real scene-stealer, drawing from his Deadpool persona to turn straightforward crime scenes into uproarious affairs with a dry one-liner or a goofy slapstick moment. Reynolds sells the simple jokes, and hearing his raspy voice come out of a devastatingly cute Pikachu will never not be funny.
So let’s talk about Pikachu, the real star of the show. The visual effects for the overwhelmingly adorable title character are incredibly photorealistic while managing to maintain the degree of cuteness that made the original animated version such a global phenomenon. The casting of original Pikachu voice actor Ikue Otani as Detective Pikachu’s normal voice helps as well, and leads to some of the most precious moments of the film. The designs for all the Pokémon never veer too far into the realm of uncanny valley either, though director Rob Letterman does delight in injecting a few moments of body horror (hey Lickitung!) into the film. When Detective Pikachu allows Reynolds riff with other Pokémon is when the film soars — all the creatures’ unique quirks in the face of Pikachu’s beleaguered attitude results in the film’s funniest sequences. Psyduck, the Pokémon partner of intrepid reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) is a standout as the character whose entire personality is him being on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and who must be frequently calmed down by Pikachu’s foot massages and soothing spa music. If the entire film was just Detective Pikachu trying to solicit information from confused Pokémon, then the film would be fantastic from beginning to end.
Alas, the story, which is akin to Zootopia meets Blade Runner, leaves something to be desired. The supporting human characters are severely underwritten — Bill Nighy does his best to camp up a stock character while Ken Watanabe is pure gravitas — and only there to service the plot. The convoluted plot and the misguided focus on Tim’s tragic backstory drags down the momentum of Detective Pikachu and adds a too-somber quality to a film that is aching to lean into the absurdity of its premise.
We see some of those elements in the sumptuous setting of Ryme City. Reflective of the story influences, the bustling Ryme City is a Zootopia-esque utopia dressed in the cyberpunk design of Blade Runner where humans and Pokémon live in harmony. Here, Pokémon battles are outlawed, allowing the film to sidestep some of the more troubling implications of the Pokémon franchise. The city is the film’s most impressive and awe-inspiring setpiece, chock full of beloved Pokémon as well as nods to the franchise that fans will delight at seeing (I may have let out an embarrassing squeal when the Squirtle Squad made a brief cameo). The fantastical Ryme City emerges fully formed onscreen, making it the perfect gateway for non-fans to fall in love with the world.
Detective Pikachu wears its heart on its sleeve, but the emotional core feels somewhat half-baked, despite the constant flashbacks to Tim’s sad childhood. But it’s in the dazzling design of the world and its characters, and when Detective Pikachu shows glimpses of enchanting, Studio Ghibli-esque flairs, that the film balances out its feeble plot and uninteresting protagonist.
There has been the ongoing debate over what makes a good anime adaptation, or whether a good video game movie can exist. But perhaps the problem is that studios keep trying to fit these anime stories into a Hollywood movie mold. Despite its rampant popularity and the universal appeal of a child-going-on-adventure story, when you get right down to it, Pokémon is kind of weird. It’s a story of child endangerment and magical cock fights, with some mythic dragons occasionally showing up. And the video game Detective Pikachu only amps up that weirdness, bringing hardboiled detective elements to a children’s franchise. Detective Pikachu could have been a wild, eye-popping adventure that captured the sincere heart of the franchise while delivering a spectacle unlike anything we’ve seen in a Hollywood blockbuster. But Detective Pikachu is just not anime enough.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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