Pokémon: Detective Pikachu brings our favorite pocket monsters to life to mostly mixed results, giving us a movie that never seems sure of who it’s really meant for.
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is called to Ryme City, a bustling metropolis where humans and Pokémon co-exist peacefully, to wrap up the affairs of his father. Tim’s dad died while on a case for the Ryme City Police Department, but his partner — a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) that only Tim can understand — convinces Tim that his dad may still be alive. When young reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) also stumbles onto the story, a larger conspiracy is unraveled that threatens the peace between humans and Pokémon.
In the realm of video game movies, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is arguably the best of the bunch, but that’s damning with faint praise. Rob Letterman’s movie plays very differently than the marketing suggests, presenting less of a nostalgic laugh riot and more of a straight-forward whodunnit with some amusing moments. It’s an odd mixture of elements that never fully gels in the way that something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the movie’s most obvious inspiration, does. Small children infatuated with Pokémon will likely find the movie too slow and boring. The novelty of seeing Pokémon in live-action will likely wear off quickly for people in their 20s and 30s, aka the generation that grew up with the cartoons and Nintendo games. And frankly, I’m not sure there’s anything here for audiences older than that.
It’s not all bad. The movie is short enough not to outstay its welcome, and there are individual scenes that work remarkably well (the Pikachu vs. Charizard showdown is arguably the movie’s high point). But the mostly predictable screenplay and haphazard character work weigh down the world-building and other positive elements that Letterman and his collaborators bring to the table. The first 20 minutes or so are an enormous exposition dump, meant to either teach newcomers about the world of Pokémon (which isn’t done very effectively) or waste the time of die-hards who already know how things work. There’s a lot of wasted potential here, unfortunately.
Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) and Kathryn Newton (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) are fine as the human leads. Smith’s role is surprisingly dramatic, while Newton is almost playing a parody of the “hungry reporter” stereotype we’ve seen in countless movies. They have enough chemistry to play well off of each other. The real star is Ryan Reynolds, whose voice is a surprisingly perfect fit for Pikachu, and his chemistry with Smith works very well (I was reminded of the chemistry between Mark Wahlberg and Ted). Honestly, the real stars are the CGI Pokémon, nearly all of whom steal the show whenever they’re on screen (especially Psyduck).
Ryme City is a marvel of production design (basically Blade Runner met Zootopia). The 35mm photography by John Mathieson (Gladiator) is also very strong. Visual effects work is mostly good; the Pokémon sometimes don’t quite blend into their live-action environments, but the cartoon-y nature of the whole thing makes that okay. Henry Jackman’s music infuses an otherwise bland score with moments of Game Boy-inspired electronica, which is a nice touch. I’d like to see more of this world, I just hope the sequels can give us a better story to go with it.