Who framed Ryan Reynolds?
In Pokémon Detective Pikachu, the rules of Pokémon and perhaps video game movies in general are turned on their head to seemingly serve a single purpose: give the people what they want. But what do audiences really want in a new Pokémon movie? A stylish film noir? A diversely casted Zootopia narrative? Dozens of CG monsters to adore and collect? The Ryan Reynolds brand of comedy under a PG rating? Or perhaps simply a reminder that when many of you were young, Pokémon (in some fashion) was a big deal to you, and now it can be a big deal to your kids.
If the purpose of Detective Pikachu is to make at least one person happy, it will no doubt succeed. There are enough strokes of detail in this wisely-crafted adaptation of the actual “Detective Pikachu” video game (a puzzle adventure separate from the more recognizable trainer games) to justify delivering something ever-unique and often dazzling to the massive fanbase.
Because to be clear, Pokémon as a garden of Japanese media has never been limited when it comes to its own offshoots, as there have been comics, TV shows, trading cards, and even games centered around simply snapping photos of the pocket monsters. For that reason, it’s not hard to imagine the appeal of a narrowly-focused action mystery highlighting the most iconic Pokémon of them all, voiced here by Ryan Reynolds.
To refer to Zootopia again, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) enters the similarly far-reaching Rhyme City, a place where humans and Pokémon can coexist without the stigma of these creatures being captured and owned by their human counterparts. Instead, they’re “partners,” able to roam free without need of a Pokéball to house them, a smart world-building choice to allow for Rhyme City to be brilliantly brimming with the unique flair these Pokémon offer simply by their appearance and fleeting mannerisms decorating most scenes.
Tim is in Rhyme City to find out what happened to his late father, a detective who mysteriously died while on a case, leaving behind his partner, a Pikachu brandishing his father’s hat. The catch is that for reasons unknown, this Pikachu has lost all of his memories, and he can actually communicate with Tim, which is unheard of for humans and Pokémon.
The two begin a partnership of their own, along with Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens, a junior reporter with a put-upon Psyduck. The cast is also rounded out by Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford, the visionary behind Rhyme City, and Ken Watanabe as Detective Yoshida, a friend of Tim’s father.
There’s no moment in Detective Pikachu bargaining for itself to be taken seriously, or beyond the trappings of a trailer for even more Pokémon movies of varying genres and cinematic detours. And as a vehicle to introduce younger viewers to the stories of this world behind the swiping of their parents’ smartphones, Detective Pikachu holds enough merit to bring these generations together for harmless fun in an admittedly shallow sandbox when it comes to actual ideas.
But for a film with such a title, is anyone really expecting this Pokémon movie to be challenging or awe-inspiring? Fans of previous theatrical Pokémon movies (the animated ones, of course) likely won’t get that familiar sense of wonder or discovery, but rather the other side of the franchise’s popularity, the one fueled by a primal need to collect, trade, and forget. Then repeat.
Detective Pikachu certainly lives up to the spirit of that aggressive impulse, which is probably why it’s already been greenlit for a sequel or two. But as an American property riffing off of what is obviously a Japanese invention, Detective Pikachu doesn’t have much to catch beyond a vague sense of facile marketability.
Jon is the co-host of Cinemaholics and author of two books: the novel Killerjoy and a book about Pixar called The Pixar Theory. His favorite movie is usually The Mask of Zorro (don’t ask).