7.5 out of 10
Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Detective Pikachu
Directed by Rob Letterman
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Review:
The decision to fill a potentially generic, kid-focused toy adaptation with the quippy charm of Ryan Reynolds seems, on its face, the most cynical, sure-to-backfire outcome of the four quadrant mentality. The fact that it works as well as it does is just one of the magic tricks Pokémon: Detective Pikachu pulls off. The thing about magic tricks, though, is that they tend to unravel if you start poking at them. But poke we shall!
For the uninitiated, the world is filled with Pocket Monsters or Pokémon, fun and potentially dangerous magical creatures with a variety of abilities. For centuries mankind has been capturing and taming these creatures in order to force them to fight each other in vicious gladiatorial battles for our amusement. [Which sounds much worse when you type it out like that than the games seem, but also has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of Detective Pikachu despite being theoretically a fundamental aspect of the brand. Ahem.] In Rime City, however, Pokémon battling is illegal leaving the creatures to live happily alongside mankind. Or so it seems. When young Tim Goodman (Smith) starts looking into his father’s mysterious death he discovers something rotten in Rime City. His only clue to what may be going on is an amnesiac Pikachu (Reynolds) with a strange sense of humor and a love of coffee.
Detective Pikachu is a weird little (well, as little as any $150 million movie can be) container of contradictions. It’s a merchandising based tie-in with a big heart and a lot of charm; it’s a film focused on world building which doesn’t care if you understand its world; it’s a film which takes great liberties with its most famous character and yet never feels false.
Some of that is because Pikachu himself is just one part of a larger whole. More than anything else Detective Pikachu is a chance to paint this world as a realistic landscape, one we can believe people inhabit and even want to inhabit ourselves. Director Rob Letterman succeeds by going against the grain of the original game as much as he goes with it but never going against its spirit. Rather than just showcase an endless array of creatures fighting each other (though plenty of that certainly happens), Letterman searches for different milieus’ to place them into organically. Sometimes they roam freely through a forest, sometimes they come creeping down from the ceiling like monsters in a horror film; they have variety not just in form but in function. And in that variety they have life.
Some of it is also because of Ryan Reynolds. Which doesn’t mean that Detective Pikachu is a Deadpool-like vehicle for Reynolds’ patented asides and one-liners (although it most certainly is). It’s that Reynolds’ buys into the world whole hog — making fun of everything in it but never questioning its reality — which allows us to buy into it as well, and in a way no other character manages. When Tim lists out the various abilities of various Pokémon it’s like someone reading from a card; when Pikachu does it, it’s just part of the world. That’s not entirely Smith’s fault as he not only has to play the straight man, but has to play it to a character who doesn’t exist and whose remarks he can’t really hear. (Actually when you put it that way, it’s quite a feat of performance.) And Smith does get his fair share of moments, particularly when Kathryn Newton’s Nancy Drew-like newshound Lucy shows up. They’re dialogue never rises too much above surface level, and neither of them have Reynolds facility for ad-lib, but charm and commitment count for a lot with this kind of material.
It counts for so much, in fact, it’s easy to look past the fact that the villains are sorely under-developed and their evil plot falls into goobledook cribbed from Tim Burton’s Batman and Zootopia. In place of better explaining any of that, or giving us a few more Tim/Pikachu bickering scenes (which are really the films’ bread and butter), it tends to stop for moments of visual grandeur — just about the most common blockbuster sin there is. Which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, no one is reinventing the wheel here and that’s perfectly fine. Nothing about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu will make you like Pokémon if you don’t already. [And the same holds true for Ryan Reynolds]. But if you’re already into both or either, its charms can’t be denied.