On some level, I wish Pokémon: Detective Pikachu had been a joke. The trailer, released in November 2018, launched a flurry of internet reactions ranging from benignly bewildered to straight up panic. Pikachu has fur?! And is somewhat problematically addicted to coffee?! And...hot?! Thug Jiggly Puff sings karaoke?! Mr. Mime is a noir icon?!
Such was the hype around this bizarre, surreal clip that the actual movie can’t quite live up to expectations. Ultimately, this isn’t some Deadpool-meets-Pokémon made-for-the-internet meme. It’s a kids movie with pretty straightforward and wholesome plot points.
Once you get past that initial disappointment, however, Detective Pikachu is pretty fun.
It's the story of Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) — yes, literally Good Man — an insurance salesman who used to dream of being a Pokémon trainer. When we meet Tim, he’s living in a small town and estranged from dad Harry, a detective in Ryme City, an experimental metropolis founded by billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) where Pokémon and humans live side-by-side in equal harmony. (In this universe, pokemon either exist in the wild, ready to be caught and trained for battle, or, as in Ryme City, they partner with humans for an optimal companion experience.) But when Tim gets a call that his dad has died in a mysterious accident while on the job, he travels to Ryme City for answers — and gains an adorably chapeau’d Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) in the process.
Turns out, Pikachu used to be Harry Goodman’s partner. The strange thing is, Tim can understand him. (Others only hear Pikachu’s trademark sound, “pika pika.”) And so begins their search for the root cause of Harry’s disappearance, a journey that takes the pair — along with newfound friend Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a noir dame lady blogger with bigger journalistic ambitions — through the mean streets of Ryme City, a world of illegal Pokémon battles DJ’d by Diplo, illegal substances meant to make the adorable creatures go beserk, and creepy, abandoned laboratories.
Based on the Pokémon franchise conceived by Satoshi Taijiri in 1990 and the 2016 augmented reality video game by the same name, the quirky genius of Rob Letterman’s film is that is draws on Millennial nostalgia, while also creating an entirely new cinematic universe for these creatures to inhabit. It’s also successful in weaving in inside jokes that longtime fans will appreciate, while not alienating newcomers to the magical world..
But this caters-to-all approach has its pitfalls, too, because it’s not entirely clear who this movie is really for. On the one hand, it’s rated PG and full of kid-friendly jokes. On the other, some of the humor seems pointedly adult.
For example, I have never felt so seen as when the film introduces Psyduck, a perpetually anxious Pokémon who’s always one banal stressor away from inducing a brain-wave earthquake. Same goes for Pikachu’s intense caffeine addiction, which seems like something designed to nod to the alcohol-soaked tradition of noir detective movies, but also feels intensely relatable to most adults living in 2019. And can a 7-year-old recognize the “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” theme song? (This isn’t a drag, I’m genuinely curious.)
And that’s okay — some of the best kids movies are able to play to both kids and adults. But Detective Pikachu never quite achieves Shrek-levels of layering double-entendres. In this case, Letterman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit and Derek Connolly from a story by Hernandez, Samit and Nicole Perlman, has created some jokes for kids, and some for adults, but rarely are they merged into something that feels especially clever.
The best part of the film are the Pokémon themselves, who slobber (Lickatung), chirp (Bulbasaur) and roar (Charizard) with total abandon. The visual effects, on the other hand, are disappointing for a film that’s ultimately based on a video game. Even more of a let down is the addition of Lucy Stevens to the pantheon of women journalists who fall in love with their sources.
The final twist is pretty predictable, but hey — for a film based almost entirely around a red-cheeked furry yellow rodent-like creature who talks like Ryan Reynolds, Detective Pikachu has got heart.