You couldn’t, wouldn’t find a bigger Pokémon fan in any high school in the American Southwest when I was around, no sir. Determined to be the very best, I put in countless hours of my childhood into breeding, training, and battling against my friends and classmates with the most elite creatures I could raise, loving every second I immersed myself in the games’ sweet, sweet universe and lore. Filled with inventive creature designs, deep, strategic gameplay, and incomparably cool worlds you wish were real, if there was ever a videogame poised to break the videogame movie curse, it would be Pokémon. So, what happens when a high budget, live action adaptation of a niche Pokémon spinoff is put to the big screen in a wide international release?
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu stars Justice Smith as Tim Goodman, a young twenty-one-year-old insurance agent living in the rural outskirts of the Pokémon world. Long after giving up on adventure and his dreams of becoming an ace Pokémon trainer, Tim is called in by the Ryme City police department to be personally informed of the disappearance—and likely passing—of his distant detective father in a roadside accident.
Just as Tim is laying his conflicted paternal memories to rest, his father’s partner, a wisecracking, caffeine-addicted Pikachu with the voice of Ryan Reynolds, rears its head, and to their surprise, they’re both shocked to learn they can understand and communicate with one another. After Pikachu shares more information about the night before his father vanished, Tim becomes convinced he is still alive and hidden somewhere in Ryme City, leading the two to set out into the metropolis’ seedy underbelly and uncover the truth about the case and Harry Goodman’s disappearance.
It definitely takes it up a notch or two, but loving and knowing the Pokémon games isn’t a necessity with Detective Pikachu thanks to the good, old-fashioned noir story at its heart. The film is very much a hard-boiled detective story following all the conventional beats of the genre, twisting and turning at every discovery and revelation with an intriguing narrative that, more often than not, smartly keeps its cards close to its chest until it needs to. And just when you might think things are getting predictable, the Pokémon element continually adds a novel, always clever fork in the road that keeps the mystery pumping through to the film’s final scene.
There are some blips in the occasionally sloppy screenplay, sometimes relying too much on glaring exposition dumps or completely glossing over important character moments/motivations crucial to the story. The lapses in writing don’t nearly make the film hard to follow, but they’re pretty noticeable, nonetheless, particularly towards the end of the second act and the narrative’s final reveal that takes a step just beyond what feels logically set up.
These complaints aren’t ultimately a big deal within the larger, thoroughly satisfying context of the film, though. Reynolds is great as Detective Pikachu, spouting off one-liners at the flip of a dime (but maybe just a hair too quippy, at times) in the way only he can. Smith also gives a strong performance as Tim, really capturing the character’s conflicted feelings about his dad with another, personally appreciable layer of disillusionment of the world after hitting young adulthood. The two actors go hand-in-hand together with their fantastic chemistry and solid writing, and the addition of Kathryn Newton’s aspiring reporter character, Lucy (and her Psyduck), rounds out the leading cast with a nice extra flavor.
But the film’s real feat is likely the pure movie magic its hundreds of animators have created in a richly detailed, gorgeously captivating world. From Ryme City on down to the rural laboratories and towns surrounding it, every inch of Detective Pikachu looks like it’s been ripped straight out of the videogames and animated series with its sleek, futuristic aesthetic.
It’s truly incredible how fully realized the film’s world is, utterly popping with personality, style, and the dozens of Pokémon littering it at every single angle. The creatures look amazing rendered into live action, and the endlessly clever, seamless ways they’re incorporated into the noir plot never fail to delight. It’s actually surprising how far the film pushes a dark, frequently adult sense of humor into the fray, but it pays off in spades, particularly in a scene featuring a Mr. Mime informant that’s pure comedic gold.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu has a couple of writing problems, but they totally pale in comparison to the excellent neo-noir story and glorious world director Rob Letterman has put onto the big screen. Fans will get infinitely more out of the film than newcomers, but there’s more than enough going on to please even the most casual moviegoer.