Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Updated: Feb 8, 2020
I feel I should start this review off by saying I am not a fan of Pokémon. I have never played the videogames, collected the cards or even really understood the appeal of it. The vast majority of my (very limited) knowledge of the franchise comes from hanging out with my nephews, who are quite enthusiastic about it. I was certainly not excited at the prospect of a live-action Pokémon movie. So, take it from me, every bit a non-fan, that movie, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, is actually kind of fun. I could not get into the mythology or action, but it is charming and funny with decent characters and a fleshed out story. It is a nice little surprise.
It takes place in a world where humans and Pokémon coexist, despite being unable to understand each other. Tim comes to Rhyme City after the death of his estranged father to clean up some personal effects before returning home. However, in his father’s apartment he meets a Pikachu, his detective father’s Pokémon partner. To both of their amazement, they can understand each other. Pikachu is convinced Tim’s father is still alive, so they team up to investigate his disappearance.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is one of the more ambitious features based on a videogame (“Detective Pikachu” was released for the Nintendo 3DS last year). It is part world-builder, part hard-boiled detective mystery and part buddy comedy. These things do not always mesh perfectly, but each supplies something necessary to the whole. It gives enough background information so newbies can follow the goings-on, without giving so much that it overwhelms the narrative. The mystery is sufficiently complex so as to give the story weight, but never takes the focus away from the central relationship. The buddy comedy is the heart of the movie. It is funny without pandering to family audiences or ever becoming too adult for kids. This is not groundbreaking stuff, though it mostly works.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu (95 minutes, minus the end credits) does have some issues with creating a world that could sustain a potential franchise. Pikachu is adorable and Tim is a pleasantly engaging lead human. None of the other characters, either human or Pokémon, has much going for them. I also never got a real sense of how they live or what they do together. While I generally enjoyed it, it did not really make me want to see more. The central relationship is handled well, as is the animation. That allowed me to easily overlook the dull action sequences and uninvolving backdrop.
In an inspired casting choice, Ryan Reynolds supplies the voice of Pikachu. He is the Pikachu we never knew we needed. He brings the right mix of sardonic wit and child-friendly silliness, with a touch of world-weariness for the noir aspect. Without him, this probably ends up appealing mostly to Poké-die hards. He is able to further the story in a way that does not feel like exposition, nailing a joke exactly when it is needed. He has very good chemistry with Justice Smith as his straight man. When the plot goes a bit off the rails down the stretch, he keeps it from blowing apart entirely.
Jumpstarting a franchise on the big screen is a difficult proposition, even for an already popular property. It has to please its base while not shutting out new viewers and make itself accessible to new viewers without alienating its base. It is a tricky balancing act not everyone is as successful at as Marvel. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is entertaining enough to keep the attention of newcomers like me. I cannot say how it will play for those who have watched all the shows, played the games and collected the cards/toys, but I am guessing they will enjoy it just fine. This is not the most rewarding family viewing experience, though it is a satisfactory diversion in between mega-blockbusters.
3¼ out of 5
Ryan Reynolds as voice of Detective Pikachu
Justice Smith as Tim Goodman
Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens
Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford
Chris Geere as Roger Clifford
Directed by Rob Letterman
Screenplay by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman and Derek Connolly