It feels like a cosmic joke that after a series of cynical, schlocky and high profile cinematic misfires, several of which wasted the opportunity to capitalize on strong material, the first good film adaptation of a video game property would come from a fantasy IP like “Pokémon.”
That’s not to say that the franchise is devoid of its own brand of cinematic potential, nor to imply that “Detective Pikachu” is anywhere near a flawless movie. It does feel odd that the first video game movie I’d be willing to call good is far from great while oddly being more ambitious than one would ever think a “Pokémon” film would be.
Following young insurance agent Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) in the wake of his father’s apparent death, the film unravels the buddy cop mystery behind the disappearance of Harry Goodman, aided by the titular Ryan Reynolds voiced Pikachu, with a surprising level of tonal complexity in stark contrast to the simplicity of the plot on display. That simplicity ultimately proves to be the closest thing to the movie’s undoing sadly. In an attempt to keep the machinations of the plot simple to emphasize characterization and world building, the screenplay ultimately devolves from functionally bland to tragically limp before breaking down into borderline nonsense by the third act. With an overblown spectacle-driven climax initiated by poor pacing and bringing the mystery to a head with a plan lacking substantial logic or proper examination, the final half hour of “Detective Pikachu” ultimately feels like either a soulless wrap-up born from crunch during a moment of creative pitfall or a sloppy homage to the franchise’s ties to tropes of Saturday morning kids cartoons, executed too poorly for either excuse to suffice.
Despite the ultimate failure of the screenplay however, the true hero rising to the occasion to save “Detective Pikachu” is surprisingly the movie’s direction. Rob Letterman’s frenetic animated and children’s feature sensibilities actually serve him surprisingly well in a live action feature set in a stylized fantasy world that’s just exaggerated enough to feel alien yet similar enough to effectively establish a sense of grounding.
The contemporary western lens that the “Pokémon” series is viewed through combines with several strong character actor performances and a staggering attention to detail regarding the integration of the many CGI Pokémon in the backgrounds and foregrounds to create the feel of a living, breathing, and fully functional Pokémon world, the likes of which games and anime of the franchise’s 23-year life span have thus far barely even come to a fraction of covering. If you’re a Pokémon fan, it may be everything you’ve wanted to see the franchise do for its entire lifespan, but even a nonfan couldn’t deny that the clever handling of world building and the subtle behaviors of a wide variety of creatures is an admirable feat.
Despite the total collapse of the story in its home stretch, the characters of “Detective Pikachu” really help to sell the quality of production with performances filled with conviction that make the movie feel noticeably more cinematic to compelling effect.
Tim Goodman’s everyman nature could have easily come off as bland but Justice Smith really sells that feeling of disillusionment towards the potential wonders of life that comes from growing up and nails the subtleties of emotional range as a young man being offered the unexpected opportunity to live his dream while grappling with grief and regret spurred by the loss of his father with whom he had a strained relationship.
Additionally, Reynolds manages to do his thing as the caffeine addicted comedic titular Pokémon lead but actually isn’t afraid to indulge in the genuine emotion of the moment as called for, allowing the jokes fall to the wayside in favor of letting a stupendous chemistry with Smith carry the moment and the two are joined by Kathryn Newton, reveling in opportunity to ham things up with a failed femme fatale shtick as wannabe intrepid reporter Lucy Stevens, accompanied by her Psyduck companion.
I really wish that I could say that this film was great instead of just okay. Despite putting its best foot forward for a strong first impression, the blandness of the writing coupled with the massive structural issues of the story that compound within the last 35 minutes or so, combined with the generally niche nature of the franchise itself, may sadly serve to limit its appeal to those with some amount of exposure to the movie’s source material, even though pockets of greatness shine beyond the level of fandom exclusivity.
While not rising to erase the sins of its video game adaptation father’s however, “Detective Pikachu’s” strong direction and brisk pacing do make it an undeniably diverting bit of popcorn fun for the average moviegoer that kids will probably adore to pieces.
3 out of 5 stars
Graduating from Texas A&M University—Commerce with a bachelor's degree in News and Editorial Journalism, Jordan Wright has lived most of his adult life professionally critiquing films, from major blockbusters to indie dramas, and has no intentions of stopping.