He’s sparky, he’s voiced by Ryan Reynolds, and he has a little hat. The long-awaited and prolifically memed Detective Pikachu has arrived to crack the case and bring one of the world’s most storied video game franchises to life, carrying the weight of years of expectation on his tiny back. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu isn’t the gritty film noir we half-jokingly dreamed it to be, but it is a genuinely dazzling bit of world-building that does justice to the dreams of those who spent countless hours with their GameBoy inches from their face, imagining a world where they too could have their own super-powered furry friend.
Detective Pikachu, an original story set in the Pokémon world, but also based in part on the Nintendo 3DS game of the same name, is an admittedly a risky jumping off point for a potential franchise. It’s not particularly interested in the battle-based hierarchy that made the games so addictive. There’s plenty of action to be found here – much of it on a grand scale, but little in the way of the trainer-led duels that seem poised for a big-screen adaptation.
Director Rob Letterman is more interested in atmosphere than cribbing direct structural elements from the games, something that could potentially alienate audiences, but it works marvelously. This a film keyed into what makes the universe tick, with every creature and location bursting with the style that made the series iconic. The world of Ryme City, the harmonious hub between Pokémon and humans that serves as the beating heart of the film, is a breathtaking bit of visual effects magic that makes every moment in the metropolis feel like it’s teeming with life. Even though the battle and creature-catching elements that form the core of the games are missing, Letterman’s world serves as a stunning treat for longtime fans and a fitting introduction for newcomers to the series.
Being a movie for children, the plot isn’t quite on the level of complexity as the effects. It’s a rather straightforward mystery, with Justice Smith starring as the antsy loner Tim, an insurance adjuster who arrives in Ryme City to settle the affairs of his long estranged and recently deceased father Harry. His father’s dedication to his job as a detective alienated Tim, and his eagerness to move on from Harry’s death is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a talking, deerstalker-wearing Pikachu (Reynolds) who only he can understand. Pikachu, riddled with amnesia and driven by the belief that Harry is alive, convinces the usually Pokémon-averse Tim to help him solve the mystery of his father’s disappearance and regain his memories along the way.
The dynamic basically amounts to an opportunity for Reynolds to do Deadpool-lite under the guise of the most adorable CG creation you can imagine, and it’s hit and miss whether or not the gimmick works. There’s some great jokes and Reynolds is turning his branded sense of sarcastic charm up to 11, but his performance feels like an element that the movie doesn’t necessarily benefit from. Had Reynolds played it a bit more in the vein of the teeth-baring noir heroes that so clearly inspired the film, the idea of a sleuthing Pikachu could have been a smarter parody and less of what we’ve come to expect from his increasingly similar roles. It’s by no means a bad performance, but one that could have used a more inspired touch.
Pikachu’s human counterparts are luckily a bit more solid, with Smith in particular continuing to prove he makes for a sensitive and charming lead. While many performances with a largely CGI counterpart can feel a bit stilted, Smith owns the challenge, building his character’s emotional relationship with Pikachu with confidence. While their roles are slightly underwritten, Kathryn Newton and Bill Nighy‘s roles as journalist Lucy and Ryme City founder Howard Clifford have the unique flair of feeling like they’re ripped straight from the games. Both give plucky, frantic performances that capture the high energy of the rivals and gym leaders that gave the series a distinct charm, and both are more than up to the campy task of bringing that vibe to the screen.
Where the film may lose some people is in its third act, where Letterman goes off the rails in the name of calling to some of the stranger implications of the franchise’s lore. It all may be a bit hard for non-Pokémon fans to swallow, but it’s an admirably kooky heel turn that plays to the film’s visual strengths and even provides some (not entirely successful) explanations for some of its weirder elements. Even with this loud, flashy finale, the film continues to make a case for its own existence, forging its own identity in what could a climatic moment ripped with any number of similar family or blockbuster films.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu certainly isn’t the kick-off for a live-action Pokéverse that we all imagined, but it manages to overcome its sometimes sloppy plotting to turn out a visually splendid and breezy bit of fun for fans and newcomers alike. Perhaps more importantly, it’s a pretty inventive way to get children into the noir genre, hopefully inspiring a whole new generation not only to love Pokémon, but also revel in the mystique of the detective dramas that inspired this film and countless others. If Pikachu solving crimes can motivate kids to get a clue about films beyond this one, that’s more than enough reason to accept this as the solid caper that it is.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu hits theaters worldwide Friday, May 10th