Reviewed on May 9, 2019
Remember when Pokémon Detective Pikachu was a joke?
It wasn’t that long ago that the movie, which spent years cycling through a series of studios, was an ironic footnote to 2019’s “most anticipated” lists, and a favorite target on Twitter and movie podcasts.
As a general rule, video game adaptations are rarely worth consideration, and as concepts go, this sounded like an amalgamation of bad ideas. Realistic-looking Pokémon? Questionable choice at best. Ryan Reynolds — Deadpool! — voicing the sweet, snuggly Pikachu? Are you kidding?
All of that changed last November when the first trailer hit, and audiences finally got a look at what was happening under the hood. This was not the movie we thought it was.
It was clear director Rob Letterman and the movie’s team of screenwriters were going for something more ambitious than we expected. The trailer revealed a noirish, Blade-Runner-style take on the material. Almost instantly, the butt of many an online joke became one of the most looked-forward-to movies of the year.
Now that the wait is finally over, does Detective Pikachu live up to the hype? Should we have gotten our collective hopes up, or should it have stayed a punchline?
What’s It About?
Detective Pikachu takes place in a world where humans and Pokémon live together in harmonious partnership. Pokémon battles — those classic events where trainers’ magical critters face off against each other — have been outlawed. Media magnate Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) has helped create a society where Pokémon live free alongside us.
Tim (Justice Smith) once had hopes of becoming a Pokémon trainer, but the death of his mother and his strained relationship with his father Harry changed all that. When Tim’s dad, a cop in neighboring Ryme City, presumably dies in an accident on the job, Tim heads over to get his affairs sorted out.
There, he runs into enterprising reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who insists Harry was on to something big, and may not be dead. Tim also meets Pikachu (voiced by Reynolds), Harry’s old partner, who’s been struck with amnesia. Pikachu needs the help of Tim — the only human who can understand him — to solve the mystery of the disappearance, and his memory lapse.
For those with passing-to-strong familiarity with the world of Pokémon, Detective Pikachu contains a lot of fun, creative world building and in-jokes.
There are details everywhere, and it’s particularly fun to see how various Pokémon’s abilities are incorporated into this new, blended society: Jigglypuff makes a living as a sleepy-voiced lounge singer! Loudred use their seismic noise skills to DJ at an underground club! Machamp’s many arms make it a natural at directing traffic!
The creativity and detail with which Ryme City and its Pokémon citizens have been realized show that a lot of thought and love was put into the creation of Detective Pikachu, and the effort wasn’t undertaken lightly. That effort is also evident in the amount of consideration given to the movie’s tone.
Detective Pikachu leans hard into the noir tropes and visuals, with strong influences coming from both the original Blade Runner and its 2017 sequel. There are lots of rain-drenched, neon-glowing streets, and one scene in particular nods to Scott’s film by mirroring a moment from it.
Detective Pikachu’s marketing campaign gave us plenty of promising samples of Ryan Reynolds’ take on the diminutive Pokémon sleuth. The movie further proves he was great casting.
As a cultural figure, Pikachu has always been kind of cloyingly adorable. Reynolds brings the right amount of self-awareness to the proceedings, keeping things fun but always reminding us that what we’re watching is just a little ridiculous.
For a movie that takes its world seriously, but also knows how hard it is to get others to do so, that’s the right tone to strike. It takes Detective Pikachu one step above a simple kids’ movie, into an area that caters to several generations of fans.
There’s a point at which Detective Pikachu stops being the weird, cool genre crossover experiment it started as, and morphs into what you might expect from a Pokémon movie — critter action, game lore, and more generic adventure beats.
As long as the film stays in the confines of Ryme City, its noir-infused vibe works well. Once it strays, though, it’s hard to recapture the feeling. Eventually, Tim and Pikachu’s adventures take them outside the city limits, and while the action that follows is impressive, it feels tonally dissonant from what we’ve seen before. Detective Pikachu becomes inherently less interesting from that point on.
The joy of Detective Pikachu is watching how characters like Mr. Mime or Psyduck (or, yes, Pikachu) fit into a completely different genre. Dropping that, and turning everything into a standard video game adventure stops that exploration dead in its tracks.
It also kills the story’s momentum, right when it needs a shot of energy. Detective Pikachu is a brisk 105 minutes, but there are times when it feels longer.
It also doesn’t help that not all the performances are on Reynolds’ level of commitment. Nighy, who plays a crucial role as Howard Clifford, seems to almost sleepwalk through the role. It’s a delight to see You’re the Worst’s Chris Geere pop up as Clifford’s snooty son, but the movie never gives him enough to do.
Neither, for that matter, does it do much for Ken Watanabe, who kills every scene he’s in as a senior Ryme City police officer, but gets maybe five minutes of screen time.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is imperfect, but it does many things surprisingly well. It’s definitely a movie made for fans of Pokémon. If you aren’t at least a little familiar with the characters, you’ll be lost for most of the movie.
For Pokémon lovers, though, the movie is mostly a clever, creative experience. The third act is wobbly, but the journey there, at least, is fun.