Review: ‘Detective Pikachu’ Works Because of the Pokémon and In Spite of the Actors

Bringing little monsters to life on film was always going to be difficult. After all, the history of creature cinema often focuses on a single creature over dozens of different ones. For every great creature feature, like Gremlins, there was Trolls or Mac & Me. However, none of those films had the weight and expectations of Detective Pikachu before its release. The first live-action Pokémon film was always going to have unreal expectations. Shockingly, Detective Pikachu not only lived up to most of the expectations, but it found its way to the top of the video game adaptation world.

Detective Pikachu follows a young man named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), whose father has supposedly been killed in a car accident. Tim returns to his father’s house in Ryme City, a place where humans and Pokémon co-exist, he meets a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds). Soon, the two are caught in a mystery to find Tim’s father, all while being hunted by mysterious forces.

The basic premise of Detective Pikachu follows the tracks laid by pulp fictions and crime noir in years past. Having the conception of Chinatown in the world of Pokémon should appeal to anyone. However, with the knowledge that many kids would likely be seeing the film, Detective Pikachu has to walk a few tightropes at once. On one hand, it has to be a fun movie for kids and adults who grew up on the material. On another, it has to work as a movie for those who have never played a Pokémon game. Finally, it has to be part Noire, part family comedy. It’s a difficult balance that it mostly pulls off. While the tone struggles to remain consistent throughout, it does create a lived-in world that pops off the screen.

Ryme City is undeniably a star of the film, despite the fact that it has little to do with the story. This boils down to the ways that director Rob Letterman and the team of writers conceived of the world. Rather than just roll out random Pokémon for story purposes, the background world is vibrant with the lives of different creatures. Some play a role in the story, others do not. Some are simply present in the background of scenes or sleeping in the middle of the street. Ultimately, their presence helps the world feel unique and visually interesting throughout.

The CGI work deserves heavy praise for bringing drastically different characters to life in compelling ways. To bring small details of the hair, facial structure, or skin patterns of these creatures to life was difficult. These feel like organic, real creatures that you can reach out and touch. Films like Jurassic Park have succeeded in creating monsters and creatures that feel life-like, and Detective Pikachu accomplishes that feat. It’s some of the best CGI of the year so far and deserves high praise for its grounding in realities. The sound teams, who had to develop unique creature effects that varied from the show, also deserve massive praise.

We got a mixed bag in terms of the performances from the cast. Reynolds slays as Pikachu and makes him every bit as relatable as you want. He’s very funny, and the mo-cap used to create a very expressive Pikachu really works wonders. The other secretly great performance here is Ken Watanabe, who absolutely brings it to every scene. I want several movies with his exhausted, Pokémon-loving detective. It’s a standout in the film and makes for a lot of fun moments.

The other actors left a lot on the table. The script gives them interesting material to work with, but some fall flat. The two biggest offenders are Smith and Kathryn Newton, who fall into the leads with no chemistry problem. They’re perfectly fine individually, and Newton’s precociousness helps her character feel real on screen. Yet when they’re not playing off of Reynold’s Pikachu, and instead play off each other, there’s something missing. They’re sadly forgettable and unlike properties like Transformers, the human’s actual matter to this story’s success.

Ultimately, the movie hits some obvious beats, and the mystery itself is not overly complicated. The world works really well, and for fans of Pokémon this should be the selling point. It’s a great starting point for a cinematic universe, even if these characters are never revisited. A Tales of the City kind of approach to a Pokémon universe would be really fun and should pave the way for interesting stories in the future. Fingers crossed that other filmmakers can step into the world created by Letterman and find equal levels of success.

Grade: (½)

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