Starring Ryan Reynolds as a PG version of Deadpool and wide-eyed baby angel Justice Smith, Pokémon Detective Pikachu tosses together the Pokémon fanbase with lightly grizzled noir cinema, a coming-of-age story and a dash of family drama. While that may seem like a meal with too many ingredients, the end result is rather filling.
Tim Goodman (Smith) exists at that stage of early adulthood when friends slip away to different corners of the globe, and one’s direction in life must be decided. Tim contents himself with the life he’s built as a junior insurance adjustor. When he learns his policeman father has been killed in the line of duty, he travels to the literal urban jungle of Ryme City, where humans and Pokémon live side by side in adorable harmony. Of course, his father’s death isn’t cut and dry. Soon, with the help of his father’s Pokémon partner, Pikachu, Tim becomes an investigator in his own right, navigating the not-so-mean streets of Ryme City and learning to dream bigger than he ever dared before.
The cute factor of this film cannot be overstated. At my screening, when Pikachu showed up, the entire audience ooed and sighed, and the reveal of any new cute Pokémon elicited the same reaction. Unfortunately, the overall story of Detective Pikachu comes off as predictable and basic. From the beginning of the second act, when Tim arrives in Ryme City, every beat can easily be called out before it happens. Reynold’s Pikachu saves the film from being banal. Cute phrases like “I feel it in my jellies” threaten to turn even the grouchiest adult into an enthusiastic kid. His love for classic detective noir is infectious.
Visually the film builds on Pikachu’s love of noir by creating a neon noir world. Instead of relying on shadows and inky blacks to create mystery, cinematographer John Mathieson (Gladiator) uses the neon glow of city signs to banish nearly all shadows from the frame. Blacks create a nice contrast but only reach a complete lack of light in a car crash scene. Lighting the film’s darker moments with neon makes the transition to the sunnier, more family-focused moments a smooth one.
The cinematography not only complements and establishes the overall tone of the film, it also prevents too much muddle from this combination of so many genres. Not surprisingly, Detective Pikachu never fully leans in to its noir mystery, clinging instead to a family-friendly center. The plot is predictable, but the dialogue is well written, and the actors are enthusiastic in their performance. Light years from perfection, Detective Pikachu still manages to be an enjoyable romp worthy of the big screen.
The fights are visually intense, but also not the central focus of the film, which may leave some fans wanting. This might constitute a small spoiler warning, but the final conflict with the main villain could just barely be described as a Pokémon battle. (Pikachu does a couple of moves, but not at the command of his partner.)
This separation from the original animated series creates an interesting new dimension to the series. In Ryme City, Pokémon cannot be owned. They aren’t human but are given the same essential rights. Some work with their human counterpart. Pikachu was Tim’s father’s partner, but journalist Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) is paired with Psyduck, a Pokémon consistently viewed as useless. Lucy and Psyduck share similar anxiety, though Lucy’s anxiety is released in a frantic can-do spirit while Psyduck has a tendency to spiral into hopelessness.
Love doesn’t require words, as Pikachu tells Tim. Even if they don’t understand one another, humans and Pokémon can feel one another’s emotions. Ryme City often resembles the wealthy neighborhoods of Los Angeles and New York where every other person walks flanked by their pet counterpart. In the grocery store, at the café, or in the theater companions are seen as vital life enhancements, inseparable for even a day.
Unlike the pets in LA, Pokémon do not look like they belong in the world. There is almost no visual identity connecting them as creatures. Mewtwo, a tall rodent-like creature, looks like he was made from malleable plastic, while Mr. Mime is closer to a glass clown covered in polyurethane. The choice to keep the visual language of the Pokémon the same as the cartoon helps ground the series in the lore.
It doesn’t matter that the Pokémon don’t mesh with the real world, though. This film is fantasy, and the results are magical. I would venture to say that Pokémon Detective Pikachu could be the best use of hyper-realism because it’s not trying to fool the audience. It completely skips the uncanny valley in favor of a wickedly fun, albeit unnatural look. While there ample missteps—a villain the audience doesn’t really care about, a lack of epic fights that brought the original audience to both the games and shows, and a predictable plot—the film manages to be a hell of a lot of fun, capturing the spirit of its source material as effectively as a well-aimed Poké Ball.
Director: Rob Letterman
Writer: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly (screenplay); Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Nicole Perlman (story); Satoshi Tajiri, Ken Sugimori, Junichi Masuda (based on “Pokémon” created by); Atsuko Nishida (characters); Tomokazu Ohara, Haruka Utsui (original story)
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse
Release Date: May 10, 2019
Joelle Monique is a Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, her passions include movies that sit at intersectional crossroads and high stakes drama TV. You can find additional work at Pajiba and follow her on Twitter.