By Noah Howard
“He didn’t even change his voice,” Ryan Reynolds’s wife complains in one of “Detective Pikachu”’s numerous tongue-in-cheek parody trailers. “It just…sounds like him.” Like the “Deadpool” movies, “Detective Pikachu” is a film where the comedy heartthrob of Hollywood simply plays an exaggerated version of himself. The titular character is brash, spritely and naive, only a few blood-splatters away from Reynolds’ mutant superhero. But unlike “Rampage,” “Tomb Raider” or other video game movie adaptations, “Detective Pikachu” doesn’t rely on its star power to carry the movie. It’s no masterpiece, but “Detective Pikachu” is a bright, fun, undeniably adorable children’s movie that will keep kids and longtime Pokemon fans tickled. Parents, however, will be put promptly to sleep.
The parents’ likely boredom arises from what, for everyone else, makes “Detective Pikachu” so engaging. While other video game movies make the Cubone-headed mistake of trying to adapt gameplay ideas into a non-interactive format, “Detective Pikachu” focusses the bulk of its effort in bringing the world and creatures of Pokemon to life in glorious fashion. It assumes you already know how this fantasy universe works, so exposition is thin, a welcome relief for folks who already know their Shedinja from their Greninja. Any newcomers, however, can expect to be utterly baffled by the ins-and-outs of Pokemon’s bizarre world (so these are animals with superpowers? That are also as fully conscious as humans? And you throw…laser balls…at them?).
But this world is the film’s greatest strength. It must have taken an army of artists to render this many different species of Pokemon on-screen, and nearly all of these cartoonish figures have made a smooth transition from two dimensions to near-photorealism, thanks in part to clear inspiration from real-world creatures (the one exception is Mewtwo, whose human-like body and weirdly tiny mouth leave him firmly in the uncanny valley). More effort has been put into populating the lush countryside and bustling Rime city of “Detective Pikachu” with all manner of beasts big and small than ever would have been necessary or expected to meet children’s low standards, and the attention to detail put into even Pokemon that appear for a second in the background is stunning. Pair that with some lovely neo-noir cinematography in the first act (which unfortunately fades to more generic blockbuster lighting later on), and “Detective Pikachu” is easily one of the prettiest live-action kids’ movies in recent years.
Tim, played by Justice Smith, and Detective Pikachu, Reynolds’s furry adorable avatar, are our tour guides throughout this world. As they search for Tim’s missing father, they’re funneled through encounters with these beautifully rendered Pokemon. Their on-screen chemistry is stellar, made all the more impressive by the fact that Smith is acting to thin air. Reynolds is charming and quippy as always. Still, Smith steals the show, feeling deeply and physically connected to his CGI environments and to his computer-rendered buddy, solidly delivering on an acting challenge that even Marvel stars occasionally botch.
And it’s a good thing that Reynolds and Smith are so strong, because the script they work with is unbearably weak. This “mystery” doesn’t trust the audience to be able to follow anything that involves more than one basic variable (to Warner Bros: kids are smarter than you think). Scenes simply progress from one to the next with either utter predictability or a sense of sudden deus ex machina, making the noir-inspired mystery of “Detective Pikachu” closer to “Blue’s Clues” than “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”. There’s an evil British man with his evil giant corporation, a plot twist that most probably figured out from the trailers alone, and a secondary character that kind of just exists, occasionally pushing Tim towards essential plot points and then randomly exiting with little explanation. In its story and pacing, “Detective Pikachu” still feels like a video game, and without the benefit of interactivity, it falls flat on its fuzzy face.
But the reason why this style of plotting (which mostly consists of “go to a place, do a thing, repeat”) is unproblematic in the Pokemon video games is that most people don’t play Pokemon for the plot. And in the exact same way, few people will show up to “Detective Pikachu” for its central mystery. They come for Reynolds and Smith, and “Detective Pikachu” delivers. They come for the whimsical world, and “Detective Pikachu” definitely delivers. Some, largely 20-somethings with fond childhood memories, will bring themselves to this PG-rated movie for the nostalgia factor, and even on this front “Detective Pikachu” wholeheartedly delivers. It’s hard to shake the sense that everyone on this filmmaking team (except the writers) genuinely loves Pokemon, and worked harder than they ever needed to in order to take this unlikely property to the silver screen. It may not be the very best like no-one ever was, but it’s a fun and adorable product of passion, and like its lovable mascot, “Detective Pikachu” wiggles its way into your heart.
Contact Noah Howard at noah.howard ‘at’ stanford.edu.