Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is the first live-action entry in a series of Pokémon movies that already number more than two dozen animated entries (with only three released theatrically in the United States). It arrives on the back of not just those films but also countless games and multiple mountains of merchandise that have defined a generation of consumerist fervor. I’ve been a daily participant for over 18 years. A recent Verge article detailed the study that found children who grew up with the series have a region of their brain that activates when they recognize Pokemon, indicating where they stored knowledge of 850 species of imaginary animals. Guilty as charged! Detective Pikachu, as it shall be referred to moving forward, has an audience literally primed to love it. All it needed to do was show off all those adorable monsters.
It doesn’t, though, and that’s kind of the problem with Detective Pikachu, a gorgeous movie in search of a soul that doesn’t seem right for hardcore fans or a casual audience. It lands somewhere in the middle of fan service and “How do you do, fellow kids?” attempts at cinematic hipness — a letdown of a peculiar sort.
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is in Ryme City searching for his missing father with the help of a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) only Tim can hear speak. Most Pokémon can only speak their own names, except this one. Their sleuthing leads them through a number of messy action set-pieces and three contrived ways of replaying the same sequence over and over again. Neither of them solve any mysteries themselves. The plot is, frankly, a real yawner.
Ryan Reynolds brings the attempted hipness but his vocal performance as Pikachu is superfluous to the character. The real mystery is how the Pokémon Company, director Rob Letterman and the army of producers attached to the film didn’t take one look at the VFX for their star and think “Who needs canned dirty jokes and rants about coffee?” Pikachu is insanely cute and expressive, on the level of Paddington, which means every line Reynolds delivers is unnecessary weight. This is Deadpool but PG because the filmmakers weren’t confident enough in the actual franchise they had. Reynolds just never stops. Never leaves anything to the audience.
Pokémon as a franchise is about exploration via collecting, and collecting is a hobby / compulsion closely connected to trying to feel a sense of discovery. (Nitpick the neurobiology or psychology all you want; I have a point I’m trying to make.) The video games are straightforward role-playing games with a mostly linear path but so many monsters to catch that it never feels repetitive. The classic Game Boy games feature fictional countries with little cultures and mythologies and unique Pokémon to find, while the mobile game Pokémon GO turns the real world into a realm for catching, battling and trading Pokemon with friends.
At the heart of both experiences is the feeling of a larger world unfolding before you. Everyone has their favorite Pokémon (Espeon here!), and anyone who has enjoyed Pokémon has their own unique story. Perfectly calibrated consumer franchise that rakes in boatloads of cash? Sure. Sublime moments of special, shared experiences with friends and loved ones? You bet.
Which is what makes Detective Pikachu feel so dead in the water. The first act is full of promise. Ryme City is a place where Pokémon and humans casually interact. No Pokéballs or Pokémon battles. We see dozens of familiar species doing everyday tasks — Machamps directing traffic, Charmandars cooking stir-fry, Squirtles putting out fires. If none of these names mean anything to you, skip the movie altogether. The eye candy is immediate.
Then the film turns its attentions to Tim’s adventure and those delicious bits of fun become fewer and father between. Slowly you start to realize that the first dozen Pokémon species you saw are the only species they actually animated. Repetition reigns. Ryme City feels smaller, the story on the screen starts to crawl … and Reynolds never. stops. talking.
Surely it’s expensive to create so many different creatures. Unfortunately once the endorphin rush of seeing Pokémon onscreen starts to subside, the threadbare plot has to do much of the work. Its convoluted mystery folds in on itself, coming to an abrupt and emotionally weightless conclusion. The ending is about as breathtakingly “Wut” as when Ash is resurrected by Pikachu’s tears in Pokémon: The First Movie: Mew vs. Mewtwo, a choice I deeply admire because it feel right in line with the franchise and is based off the oddest story beat in the original games. Shame the rest of the mystery isn’t as fun.
Detective Pikachu is probably the best video game adaptation ever made by default because a studio put real money and talent behind it. But it doesn’t succeed in shedding many of the problems those other films have. It feels like the characters are listlessly floating from one big moment to the next. Exposition is blunt and unforgiving, even when the same information is delivered twice. As pretty as the world of Ryme City is, it starts to feel less lived-in and sterile the more you look at it. That moment whenyou realize that every single person on the street has a Squirtle, a Charmander, or a Machamp. Honestly, just watch the two or three trailers and that cute video of Pikachu dancing for 30 minutes: you’ll get as much out of it.
I’m aware that this review seems to be complaining that the movie wasn’t enough like the games, but also too much like the games. Not exactly. It feels structured like the rote plot progression of a game, when instead it would have been better to adapt the feeling of the games. A sizable, and perhaps impossible task.
Am I simply disappointed that Detective Pikachu didn’t deliver what I want out of a Pokemon adventure? Sure. However, it’s very hard for me to see what it offers to anyone not steeped enough in lore to enjoy the first act Wreck-It Ralph-style recognition game. The two Pokémon fans who joined me were similarly nonplussed. At best, Pikachu is a tech demo — proof that, with the right script and approach, a live-action Pokemon movie wouldn’t be horrifying. Hopefully that happens someday because they have me for life regardless. After all, I stopped to catch a Bulbasaur on the way home.