As an older, mostly casual fan of Pokemon, I feel a bit awkward reviewing Detective Pikachu. After all, it’s clear that this film was made to please long-time Pokemon fans as well as younger viewers. I have no doubt that most people from either camp will enjoy this movie regardless of the criticism it will inevitably receive. However, I hope that those fans will be kind to those who disagree with them. After all, it’s clear that Detective Pikachu could have been so much more for those not in the movie’s intended audience as well as those who have been waiting a very long time for a movie like this.
Detective Pikachu tells the story of a young man named Tim Goodman who seems remarkably disenchanted by the fact that he lives in a world filled with Pokemon. His mood doesn’t improve when he receives word that his father who he has long been separated from, has died. Goodman then travels to Ryme City, a unique urban environment where Pokemon and humans live and work in harmony, in order to settle his father’s affairs. In the process, Goodman meets his father’s Pikachu and learns that he has the seemingly impossible ability to actually hear everything that the Pikachu is saying. That’s quite the handy ability considering that this Pikachu is saying that he believes Goodman’s father may still be alive. The only problem is that the Pikachu seems to have lost his memories and can’t quite remember the circumstances of the father’s death.
Much of what you’ve already seen of Detective Pikachu in trailers and commercials comes from the film’s first act. While that’s pretty common, it feels like a particularly deliberate action in this instance as the first act of Detective Pikachu is not only relentlessly entertaining and a loving tribute to the Pokemon franchise but far and away one of the best video game movie adaptations I’ve ever seen.
What makes this first act work is the effort that goes into building this world. Granted, so many of the Pokemon references in this part of the movie are going to fall on deaf ears to anyone not already familiar with the franchise, but even those who never named their starter Pokemon will surely appreciate how this film convincingly portrays a land where these creatures exist alongside humans whose lives are no different than our own. We see Machamps directing traffic, Jigglypuffs singing at an all-night diner, and Charmanders heating up the woks of street food vendors. That’s a lot of fan service, but it will be hard to find someone who has seen this movie who wouldn’t at least want to spend a couple of weeks in Ryme City’s bustling and charming vision of a Pokemon metropolis, akin to a modern Toon Town from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
It’s not just the Pokemon references that make this part of the movie work, though. The first act of Detective Pikachu spends nearly as much time paying tribute to Pokemon as it does classic noir films. The movie may be heavy-handed with its references, but it’s all so charming that you’ll excuse shadow heavy lighting, neon signs, and Bogart-worthy dialogue. Besides, it’s clear that the writers had a lot of fun finding ways to seamlessly blend the worlds of noir and Pokemon.
They’re not the only ones having fun. As you’ve probably guessed, Ryan Reynolds was the perfect choice to play a very eager and curious version of Pikachu. While there are times when his fourth-wall breaks make you realize he’s doing a played-down version of Deadpool, many of his early jokes land. Besides, Reynolds boasts a natural charm that only enhances the undeniably good CG work that makes Pikachu feel like a living, breathing, loveable character. Simply put, whatever works about this film would likely not have worked with anyone but Reynolds in this role.
Surprisingly, Justice Smith manages to pull quite a bit of weight as the movie’s human lead. He doesn’t get to have much fun as Reynolds (he is the straight man after all) but he’s more than adequate as the largely unwilling protagonist who (like so many film noir protagonists before him) finds himself caught up in a scenario he could have never imagined. His admirable efforts as a human in this world are echoed by an underutilized Ken Watanabe and Kathryn Newton’s blogger twist on the “reporter dame” genre character trope.
When all of these elements come together such as they do in the film’s first act, Detective Pikachu undeniably works. By the time we start the second act of the movie, though, Detective Pikachu abruptly abandons nearly everything that made it stand out. It’s a decline in quality so sudden and drastic that it will take you a few minutes to recover and realize that something has just gone horribly wrong.
As harsh as this may sound, Detective Pikachu‘s problems start around the time that the real plot begins to kick in. Specifically, the film goes into a nosedive around the time that our heroes leave the city as part of their investigation. It’s bad enough that we have to leave Ryme City, but what really kills this part of the movie is how little effort is made to utilize any of the personality and world-building that has carried the film thus far. Instead, we’re treated to some grandiose CG action sequences that feel like they could have been in many of the worst Transformers sequels or an equally generic blockbuster. There’s very little in this part of the movie that wouldn’t play out roughly the same if you replaced the Pokemon with giant robots, or spirit guardians, or any other character besides the ones that attracted most everyone to this movie in the first place. Even Reynolds’ quips become less amusing as he goes from being a sarcastic, but endearing, wannabe detective to a non-stop chatterbox making cheap jokes about global warming and dating.
The film’s finale fares slightly better simply because its painfully generic CG action sequences actually bother to use some Pokemon in ways that actually take advantage of their unique attributes. Of course, that does little to help the force-fed plot points that dominate this act of the movie and rely on the kind of obvious twists that Pikachu actually makes fun of earlier in the movie. You’ll likely have guessed what every character in the finale is going to say before the suddenly bad dialog leaves their mouth. What’s even worse is that most of the movie’s characters outside of Pikachu disappear (literally, at one point) only to bring them back again for obvious and unsatisfying payoffs.
It’s at this point that you’re probably saying “Yes, but this is a children’s summer blockbuster, so what do you expect?” Well, I expect the movie that I got in the first-third of Detective Pikachu. You know, the one with the clever writing, memorable characters, and computer imagery that was used to create not just action spectacle but a world brimming with personality and creativity. Perhaps an action finale in a movie like this is inevitable, but why couldn’t that action at least better utilize the abilities of the Pokemon in this world as well as the other characters that the film bothered to set-up until that point before nearly abandoning entirely? Why is it that much of this movie suddenly lost interest in telling a story unique to Pokemon and suddenly became interested in mimicking other blockbusters like the renegade Ditto that serves as one of this movie’s few late highlights?
The answers to these questions are all probably the same as the answers to why dozens of other modern blockbusters abandon a shred of creativity in favor of pushing a generic, safe product. The situation is far worse in the case of Detective Pikachu, though, because we don’t have to theorize about what the film could have been. We saw that the team behind Detective Pikachu had the knowledge and the ability to make something truly special that wouldn’t just appease the film’s investors and satisfy hardcore Pokemon fans but capture the imagination of anyone looking to understand why Pokemon has captivated millions for over 20 years.
Instead, it ends up being a good enough movie. Well, maybe those who the film is going to be good enough for should ask themselves if they deserve more.