Review: “Pokémon Detective Pikachu”

3 out of 5 stars.

I think it’s safe to say that I am one of very few people my age who was never into Pokémon.  I never watched the animated shows or movies, never played the video games, and never traded the cards.  I can identify Pikachu on sight, but that’s really about it.  So when I walked in to an opening night screening of “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” I really didn’t know what to expect, not coming into it with the sort of knowledge and nostalgia that so many others in my theater obviously were.  But I was pleasantly surprised to find that, while it isn’t a great movie, it’s an immensely entertaining one that is easy for Pokémon newbs like me to follow despite not grasping the significance of several scenes, characters, and Easter eggs scattered throughout the film.

Directed by Rob Letterman, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is based on the video game of the same name, and is set in a world where Pokémon and humans exist side-by-side.  We meet our protagonist, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), in the opening scene.  Tim grew up wanting to train Pokémon, but gave up on that dream after his mother passed away and his father moved to Ryme City to be a detective, so now he’s working a humdrum insurance job.  But when he learns that his father and his Pokémon both suddenly died in a car accident while on the job, Tim travels to Ryme City—a city whose founder, Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), stresses the importance of the bond between human and Pokémon.  It’s there that he meets a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who claims to have worked with Tim’s dad Harry, but has amnesia and can’t remember much else.  Realizing that Harry must have been on to something big, Tim and Pikachu, along with aspiring journalist Lucy (Kathryn Newton), begin digging for clues surrounding the circumstances of his death.

Tim (Justice Smith), Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), and Lucy (Kathryn Newton) investigate Harry’s death

“Detective Pikachu” is a film that seems to thrive on opposites.  The story initially appears predictable, but there are some twists thrown in at the end.  It starts out on more of a noir/mystery note, but ends with action heavy sequences that are more similar to other Hollywood blockbusters.  And more emphasis and care is put into the Pokémon characters than the human ones, resulting in parts of the story lacking.  With Reynolds being cast as the voice of Pikachu, this isn’t much surprise.  He brings the same kind of humor—albeit more PG—that he uses for Deadpool to the cute little characters, and it’s initially a little jarring.  But the voice ultimately ends up suiting the character, and this movie turns out to be very funny, with some especially good scenes between Pikachu and Tim.  Unfortunately, when the human characters like Tim aren’t interacting with the Pokémon, they come off as rather bland and uninteresting in comparison, despite the emotional arc surrounding Tim and his relationship with his dad.  Since Tim is the most important character, the one whose journey we go on in this movie, it isn’t great that he’s almost always upstaged by Pikachu. 

This film does have several highlights though, particularly in the visual effects.  The look of this movie is so successful at least partly because the filmmakers didn’t try to make the Pokémon characters appear hyperreal.  They look cartoony and retain most of their cartoony traits, but are just real enough to fit in to the live-action human world.  In some ways, the film actually could have pushed both the look and feel of its rather ridiculous premise even further.

Pikachu loves coffee

“Detective Pikachu” is also very entertaining, and moves along at a fast pace while delivering solid action scenes with a tinge of mystery.  But there’s no one who will leave more entertained than the Pokémon fans.  This film comes dangerously close to putting fan service ahead of story (even I could recognize a few lines of dialogue that were clearly only present to serve as a callback to something in the games), but it still manages to strike a balance that will exhilarate longtime fans while remaining comprehensible to newcomers.  Based on the amount of gasps and laughter from the audience at certain points in the film, the significance of some scenes definitely went over my head (and maybe resulted in me researching the various Pokémon in the film hours after the movie ended).  It might not have been a particularly good movie in many respects, but it was just enough to get this Pokémon newbie on board with the franchise.

Runtime: 104 minutes. Rated PG.

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