Detective Pikachu (sometimes billed as Pokémon Detective Pikachu, but for the purposes of this review, I will refer to it as Detective Pikachu) was not a film I anticipated greatness from. The well-established video game movie curse exists for a reason, and other than a central property’s ride-or-die fans, many of these films (ex. Warcraft, Max Payne, Resident Evil) have had a hard time appealing to a broader audience. I have a vague fondness for the Pokémon brand, established in my childhood, that kind of got a resurgence after Pokémon Go took the world by storm in the summer of 2016.
I’m happy to report that Detective Pikachu never lacks imagination. While it may not be particularly smart or original story-wise, it did pretty much everything I expected and hoped a Pokémon film released in 2019 would do.
Tim (Justice Smith) just received news that his distant father is missing and presumed dead. His father lived in Ryme City, a neon-colored metropolis where human beings and Pokémon live together in harmony, and every person seems to have a Pokémon sidekick. Tim travels to Ryme City, initially to say goodbye, but he soon realizes there is more of a mystery to his father’s disappearance. He finds his father’s Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who only Tim can understand when he speaks. Together, they go on a mission to solve the mystery of what happened to Tim’s father, but also to piece together the puzzle of why Pikachu has suddenly lost all his memories.
This is an adaptation of a 2016 video game, and not based on anything in the iconic Pokémon manga or previous films. I am not a video game person and have no knowledge of the gameplay of Detective Pikachu, and how it might compare from that angle. As a movie, this is the purest dumb fun a movie could possibly provide. It’s so energetic and charming and exuberantly weird, you don’t even notice how uneven and by-the-numbers this narrative is, and perhaps that doesn’t even matter. The viewer is having enough fun.
This is colorful, vibrant and gleefully bizarre. It’s conceived as a film noir throwback with Pokémon, and I was on board for every second of it. It nails the world building – the viewer really wants to visit Ryme City! Shot by Gladiator cinematographer John Mathieson, the neon cyberpunk visuals bring to mind Blade Runner, and others that have attempted this kind of thing but haven’t entirely pulled it off (think 2017’s Ghost in the Shell), but the world this movie exists in feels wholly fresh and unique to itself.
When I first learned of the casting of Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu, I was skeptical. I couldn’t imagine his voice coming out of Pikachu, and I wasn’t sure what angle they were going to take with this. Would he be doing a voice of some kind, or would this be like motion capture Deadpool? Well, neither is the case. He is not doing a funny voice. Warner Bros. wanted Ryan Reynolds, and they got Ryan Reynolds. You get the idea that he recorded a ton of dialogue for this movie, and a lot of it was improvised because the energy of the Pikachu character isn’t matched by the rest of the movie. Would this movie have completely fallen apart without Reynolds’ voice work? It’s tough to say, but probably.
As for the human actors, everyone is doing satisfactory work, but no one really stands out. Justice Smith, most recently seen in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, plays Tim, and he’s good, but he’s not exactly blowing you away with his comedic timing or ability for pathos. He is probably giving a better performance than this movie needs, but he seems aware that the viewer isn’t there to see him. Kathryn Newton plays Lucy, a sort of anime manic pixie dream girl, and she’s always good. Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe have supporting roles, and the less said about them, the better.
Overall, if you’re able to sit back for a couple hours, suspend disbelief and ooh and ahh at adorable CGI creatures, you will enjoy Detective Pikachu. The characters may be underwritten, and the story itself may be a bit thin, but there is so much here to enjoy, I didn’t even mind while I was watching. It’s a delightful, fast-paced adventure film that should prove thrilling for fans of the Pokémon franchise. It may not be as accessible as it could be to people that go into it blind, but I would argue that there’s something here for everyone. It will probably not break the video game curse for other properties. However it clearly wants to set up a franchise, and you leave the theater hoping to visit this world again.