It was probably wise for Nintendo to base their first live action movie since the disastrous Super Mario Bros. off of their left-field Pokémon spin-off Detective Pikachu. There’s a lot of potential to be found in the cinematic aspirations of its story and the off-center quirkiness of its premise. Turning the face of a collect-and-battle franchise into a coffee-addicted detective? It’s like creating a Resident Evil game that’s a dating sim about love in the time of zombie apocalypse. Good or bad, there’s no way it isn’t at least a little intriguing.
The film follows the basic outline of the game’s story, centering on 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), arriving in the metropolis of Ryme City, where humans live side by side with Pokémon. Tim’s detective father Harry has gone missing, and to figure out what happened he teams up with Harry’s Pokémon partner, a Pikachu. Although this Pikachu is unusual in that he has amnesia and can communicate with Tim in the voice of Ryan Reynolds. With the help of wannabe-investigative journalist Lucy (Kathyrn Newton), Tim and Pikachu take up Harry’s last case in the hopes of finding him.
If you only have a passing familiarity with the Pokémon franchise, a lot of that paragraph might sound odd. Where’s the “gotta catch ’em all” stuff? That’s part of the charm of the Detective Pikachu premise. Aside from an opening scene where Tim tries to catch a Cubone (which goes decidedly Not Well), there’s little of the standard Pokémon mechanics at work here. In fact, Ryme City is positioned as a more enlightened and sophisticated place where people don’t catch Pokémon and battles between the cute little seizure-monsters are outlawed. There aren’t any to quest for because they’re living next door to you.
Detective Pikachu instead lives in an interesting dividing line between fandom and outsider. By jettisoning the typical Pokémon trappings, it opens it up to audiences not familiar with the franchise. At the same time, the film is crawling with easter eggs and cameos for the fans, and the film tends to feature the most well known Pokémon (Pikachu, Charizard, Bulbasaur, etc.) as accurately and holistically as possible.
The biggest asset to the film is how well-designed and integrated the setting and characters are with each other. A tremendous amount of work went in to making Ryme City as vibrant and lived-in as possible. This looks like any other major city, with as much tactile sense and just as strong a heartbeat. This is a place where Squirtle help put out fires and a Machamp directs traffic at busy intersections. No matter what happens in the film, the visuals are always on point and absorbing. The movie was shot on film, not digital, giving everything a healthy does of old-school realness. Henry Jackman’s electro-orchestral score, with its retro synths and anime-informed structure, helps elevate the mood even further.
This attention extends to the CGI, as well, which can vary but rarely disappoints. Pikachu himself is rendered amazingly well, with lifelike textures and movements. Lucy’s Psyduck is treated just about as well, although it occasionally has more of a resemblance to an animated stuffed animal than a flesh-and-blood creature. Even the monsters that look less impressive and more virtual, like a pack of Greninja encountered late in the film, still don’t appear out of place in the frame.
If as much care had been placed on the story structure and flow, the film could have been exceptional, but it’s here where it falters. The first act is incredibly slow and shallow, covered in (admittedly necessary) exposition and awkward character interactions. Nothing seems to happen, or even have the possibility of happening, until Pikachu shows up. But from that point on, everything seems to proceed at a breakneck pace. Character arcs are fast-tracked, and plot points are introduced at a dizzying speed. While it’s nice to see a major studio film come in at less than 2 hours these days, Act 2 could seriously have done with an extra 10 minutes.
Pikachu’s entrance is welcome for several reasons, not the least of which is Ryan Reynolds instantly charming voice-over and motion-capture work. Reynolds has put his full self into the role, and his dedication helps completely sell the film’s premise and story, even during its weakest parts. Although he’s blunted a little by the film’s PG-rating, he brings the same free-wheeling, fully-here-for-it spirit to Pikachu as he did to Deadpool. The film simply wouldn’t work without him, and there’s probably nobody else who could have done the role like he does.
The human actors don’t always come off as well. Justice Smith does a great job, but he seems to be acting in a different film than the rest of the cast. Kind of like how Tim is the only human who can understand Pikachu, Smith has excellent chemistry with Reynolds but literally with nobody else. His scenes with Ken Watanabe as Harry’s friend and co-worker are strangely stilted, as if the actors filmed their scenes separately and were digitally composited in after the fact. He has zero chemistry with Kathryn Newton, who seems like she’s trying but doesn’t understand what she signed up for and is fighting against a poorly-written character. (It’s sad that Lucy’s Psyduck has more personality than she does.)
But even that isn’t quite so bad. As video game movies go, we’ve seen way, way worse. WAY worse. In some cases, flat is better than outright bad. The film is never not entertaining, and the central relationship between Tim and Pikachu is grounded, realistic, and even emotionally-affecting. Both characters are dealing with loss and questions of identity, and both do so in very different ways that actually end up complimenting each other. As buddy action/comedies pairs go, Tim and Pikachu are some of the best in recent memory.
Despite its narrative shortcomings, there’s a lot to recommend about Detective Pikachu. For a PG-rated film about a game primarily marketed to younger audiences, it has a surprising amount of depth and even some rather clever and unexpected scenes. (An interrogation of a Mr. Mime slides so easily and invisibly into dark comedy that it becomes almost brilliant.) Thrilling visuals, mind-blowing CGI work, a dynamic score, and a singularly captivating performance by Ryan Reynolds help smooth over a confused story and a cast of weak supporting characters. It’s still a massive evolution for the Pokémon franchise…and even a small one for video game films in general. I don’t remember any of the Lara Croft films being this much fun.
FBOTU Score: 6 out of 10 / B-