The central premise of the Pokémon franchise — which ranges from video games, card games to manga — is relatively simple: picture a world in which there are hundreds of species of mostly cute small monsters, all of whom humans have trained to battle each other in matches. But in the brand’s first live-action film, that premise is out the window. In Detective Pikachu, director Rob Letterman imagines a world in which people and Pokémon live together in harmony, a world without cage matches, a cute utopia where plenty of secrets are simmering underneath. Overall that isn’t the worst idea in the world, and the CGI that enliven this world of people and Pokémon is nothing short of fantastic. But no amount of technical shine can save a thin narrative that confuses more than it amuses.
The film opens on Jack (Karan Soni) trying to convince his best friend Tim (Justice Smith) to get back into Pokémon training by attempting to capture one out in the middle of a field. Soon after the attempt goes terribly wrong, Tim gets the bad news that his policeman father is presumed dead. Tim then travels to Ryme City, a place where people and Pokémon live side by side, instead of a trainer-competitor relationship. In his dad’s apartment, Tim comes across a small container of a mysterious purple substance. He then opens it and gets a face-full of purple gas that apparently drives any and all Pokémon into a frenzy. Except it also allows Tim to understand his father’s Pokémon partner, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), even though all anyone else can hear from the yellow creature is “Pika! Pika!” And since Tim’s father’s body was never found, Pikachu (who’s somehow lost his memory) is convinced that he’s still alive and together Pikachu and Tim set out to find him.
Justice Smith & Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) in Detective Pikachu
Far too quickly, Detective Pikachu drifts away from its Pokémon-heavy cityscape in favor of, for the most part, lacking action sequences. The promise of pocket monsters skittering through back alleys, mixing it up with shady characters and private eyes, goes largely unrealized. Instead, Detective Pikachu settles into the generic rhythms of a low-tier ’80s cop movie — so basically, noir for dummies. Or, to be more fair, noir for kids. As this is very much a children’s film, in that it’s noisy, simplistic, and carries a willful ignorance about how even a fake version of the real adult world would work. Tim seems like’s he’s supposed to be around Justice Smith’s actual early-twenties age, but he could just easily be seventeen, or even ten for all I know. He and the other actors are consistently hamstrung, lacking any identifiable point of view to express. Most of the movie’s personality is allotted to Reynolds doing Deadpool lite, with everyone else spread to mostly sight gags.
Detective Pikachu is then again still a detective story, packing along the genre signature of twists and turns. Except anyone over the age of eleven will deduce the identity of the villain and all twists that come with it. Which would have been fine if the film offered more delight in the visuals, the performances or the humor. Instead, we get a movie that’s both overstuffed and underwritten, making it seem concurrently ambitious and lazy. But as the film goes along, it doesn’t so much as go off the rails as grinds to a halt in the middle of what should be slam-dunk fun. By the time Detective Pikachu unveils some of its third-act twists they only further muddle the film down more.
Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) in Detective Pikachu
If you’re a die-hard Pokémon fan and have waited your entire life to see this world brought to life, then Detective Pikachu may well possibly be everything you ever wanted. But if you aren’t, this film likely won’t be for you. As once it really gets going it begins to start going through the motions. And once it starts going through the motions, it can’t seem to stop, until the whole thing turns into a series of empty gestures that possibly could only serve Pokémon fans. The movie tries to sound like a comedy (especially when Reynolds is going at it), look like a noir, and act like a big summer blockbuster. Yet ends up being a whole lot of branded nothing.