“The best video game movie ever” wasn’t a very high bar.
Every Pokémon fan has fantasized about a live-action adaptation. Most of us imagined an aged-up Ash Ketchum against a slightly more menacing Team Rocket. The Pokémon designs we knew so well would shine in stylized CG. That’s why so many were surprised when Pokémon: Detective Pikachu’s trailer hit, full of realistic re-imaginings of once cuddly creatures.
Loosely based on the weird spin-off game of the same name, Detective Pikachu sees Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) travel to Ryme City to clean up his estranged father’s apartment after he disappeared in a fiery car crash. He’s surprised by a talking, amnesiac Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who’s certain Tim’s father is alive. The two try to find the connections among Ryme City’s utopian leadership, a shady research facility, a compromised media outlet, and a mysterious gas that turns Pokémon feral.
Yes, you’ve seen this movie. No, there are no surprises. But there are a ton of Ryan Reynolds jokes and superficial Pokémon fanservice.
We open with Mewtwo’s escape from a lab, then cut to a quiet town reminiscent of Pallet Town, the first area from the original Pokémon games. Here, the film tries to introduce the concept of a “partner Pokémon” instead of the traditional team of Pokémon for battles. Battles are outlawed in Ryme City, and this scene in Tim’s unnamed hometown features Detective Pikachu’s only Poké Ball. This premise dulls the appeal of a franchise built on spectacular clashes between powerful creatures.
The nod to tradition does lead us into this new world gently, though, and we’re in the city fast. Pokémon seem to dot every inch of the screen. Blink-and-you’ll-miss cameos sell the idea that people and Pokémon work together. Machamp directs traffic around a sleeping Snorlax; Golurk guard the police station; Octillary runs a food stand. If you don’t understand why those are fun, Detective Pikachu does little to help you. Most Pokémon get frames of screentime while only major players get ability rundowns. The realistic Pokémon do look really cool, but I didn't see any not in the trailer.
When Pikachu finally appears on screen, Reynolds demands attention for the rest of the runtime. Smith manages to hold his own against the fuzzy distraction as snappy dialogue zings through scenes. Only Tim can understand Pikachu, so most major scenes have Smith taking in new information while bantering with Reynolds’ snarky Pikachu. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Reynolds delivered lines from the set while crouched behind furniture.
The script is hilarious, and the chemistry between partner and Pokémon is the main draw here. Jokes fly fast enough for laughter from hits to drown out misses. The comedy stays classy with allusions to cheap humor sprinkled in, like an excellent fart joke without a sound effect. I was surprised, too. In fact, the dialogue surprises at every turn as Tim accidentally tells strangers he’s on drugs and Pikachu says he’s not the kind of Pokémon to invite people into his apartment. Reynolds’ trademark comedic timing brings an electricity to Pikachu completely missing from the original game, but he is hard to buy as a “world-class detective.”
These two don’t actually do any detective work. Tim is dragged from plot point to plot point by an aggressive young reporter, Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who has most of the plot figured out before the movie starts. Twice, Tim lucks into hologram flashbacks that reshape the narrative. While I’m sure these scenes looked stunning in 3D, I wouldn’t have seen them through my massive eye-rolls.
Tim and Pikachu do, however, do a lot of running. By removing Pokémon battles from the world, every bit of action is reduced to an escape sequence. Even the cool premise of an underground fight club is played for laughs as Detective Pikachu runs scared and can’t remember any of his attacks. When Tim and Pikachu escape some Pokémon guarding secret plot details, they find themselves on the run from even more Pokémon just outside the building. At only an hour and forty-four minutes, Detective Pikachu spends a surprising amount of time on low-stakes action.
Detective Pikachu is a fun kids’ movie, and that’s fine. While Pikachu gets off a few bottom-tier swears and clever Pokémon cameos reward longtime fans, there’s little substance under the Pokémon branding. The nature vs. science subtheme is dropped when the villain goes comically overboard, painting morality as black and white. Mewtwo doesn’t reprise his questions on the meaning of life. This is a fast-paced ride for diehard Pokémon and Reynolds fans only. If that’s you, enjoy it.