Movies based on videogames have a dubious track record. In fact, if you do not count movies that are of such poor quality, they are unintendedly comical geniuses, like “Super Mario Bros.” or “Mortal Kombat”, the genre is essentially a waste of everyone’s time and money. Needless to say, that despite recruiting the star power of Ryan Reynolds, who can seemingly do no wrong in the past decade or so, simply attempting a “Detective Pikachu” movie was spitting into the wind.
Having said all of that, I am delighted to say that we finally have a competent movie in the genre. And perhaps more stunningly than anything is that it was Pokémon, a franchise that thrives on turn-based strategy gameplay over storytelling, that actually was the first to break through. What a time to be alive, I say.
The movie is about Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a publicly known 21-year-old loser that works a stable job in insurance and doesn’t play with Pokémon. After getting a call from the Ryme City Police Department that his father has died in a car crash while working an investigation, Tim goes to his estranged father’s apartment to get closure, only to find a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), who Tim can actually communicate with, rummaging through Tim’s father’s belongings. For those of you who do not know, Pokémon can only communicate by either saying their own names or via primal growls, so having a Pikachu that speaks perfect English is essentially an abomination unto the Lord. Pikachu is suffering from a nasty case of plot convenience, I mean amnesia, and he convinces Tim that they need to team up to solve the mystery of what happened to his father and why Pikachu doesn’t remember anything.
For fans of the Pokémon franchise, you will absolutely love this film for nothing more than the fact that the world is overflowing with beautifully rendered, realistic versions of all of your favorite pocket monsters. There are so many references and callbacks to other media in the franchise in creative ways that you truly see how much care and respect the filmmakers had for the source material the film was based off. The most impactful reference being a recognition of “Pokémon The First Movie”, the animated origin film of Mewtwo, actually taking place in the same continuity as “Detective Pikachu”. If you are not a long-time fan of Pokémon, the film may be a little difficult to latch onto. However, considering the sheer magnitude of content and jargon that could be outlandish to the unacquainted, there is enough charm and simplicity that it could be understood without an encyclopedic knowledge of Pokémon. “Detective Pikachu” could have been the mess that “Hellboy” was, but instead creates a much more approachable world that I believe anyone with an imagination would be eager to return to.
As far as storytelling goes, we are not exactly dealing with the next “Citizen Kane” here. But it is a movie targeted towards children so I hope no one was expecting the 2020 winner for the Academy Award for Best Picture. The mystery is not as big of a point as it should be. No one really ever solves anything, rather they just go from place to place, click a “Show Exposition” button, and have a high-quality detailed hologram show them everything they are looking for. The idea of the mystery is simply a plot device to get the main characters to go one place to the next and show off more Pokémon, not that you will hear anyone complain about that. The plot is serviceable, just not exceptional.
A truly surprising aspect of the film was Justice Smith’s performance. I am not very familiar with his previous filmography and I had the idea in my head from the trailers that he would simply be playing the typical reluctant protagonist who is swept up in an adventure that he has zero aptitude for, despite being called needlessly special. But I was pleasantly caught off guard by his character. He began by dragging his feet, but really came around to embrace the role, all while portraying a considerable amount of emotional depth. One scene in particular stands out: when he talks to Pikachu about how he never gave his father a fair chance to reconnect and he is holding back his tears until he can no longer do so. I was genuinely impressed with his performance and I look forward to seeing more from Smith in the future.
Ryan Reynolds is as good as ever. The movie could be completely devoid of plot and everyone in the audience would just be having an absolute pisser laughing at him as an adorable electric mouse with a tiny hat doing his usual Ryan Reynolds schtick. It is a working formula with a proven track record that holds up, once again.
As for the rest of the human cast… Nothing to write home about. You almost feel like the actors were told it was a Pokémon movie and decided they needed to be cartoonish caricatures. It is a shame because Tim seems like an actual person and the most realistic characters he appears next to are computer generated superpowered monsters. I am sure younger viewers may not be as critical of the rest of the characters I am, because hopefully they are not as cynical and jaded as a 23-year-old with depression.
Where this film succeeds most is world building and comedy. Ryme City is a location brimming with culture and vivid creatures that just beg viewers to explore every corner. The chemistry between Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith is fantastic, with enough subtle adult humor thrown in for everyone to enjoy. It is not a flawless movie but it is certainly an objective success, which treads on uncharted territory for the genre, and I would certainly be interested in a sequel.
I would give “Detective Pikachu” a fair 7.9 out of 10
Directed by: Rob Letterman
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy
Runtime: 1 Hour and 44 Minutes