I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t particularly excited when Ryan Reynolds was selected to voice the titular character in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. In my mind, his voice is the ‘X’ factor that brings Deadpool to life on the big screen, a smarmy rasp that’s perfect for R-rated cynicism, but not exactly ideal for the first live-action take on everyone’s favorite electric mouse. So imagine my surprise that in a film full of colorful CGI creatures, Reynold’s Pikachu performance is its sole spark of life; a critical hit in a flurry of misses.
For the first act of the film, I was fully on board. Director Rob Letterman does a great job introducing us to the world of Pokemon, where children are given a pocket-sized monster and expected to travel far and wide, catching and battling other critters to prove who’s best. It’s not an intricate storyline per se, but once you start throwing around words like “Greninja” and “Blastoise” in quick succession, it could easily confuse someone uninitiated to the decades-old franchise.
Early scenes where our main character tries to catch a crying Cubone or has to fight off a horde of rapid Aipom are where Letterman, and the five writers that are credited with the script and story, really shine. Even if their film eschews the typical Pokémon plotline mentioned above, they depict this world with such confidence that it’s a breeze for them to carve a kid-friendly murder mystery out of a science-fiction environment. The movie is shot on 35mm film, and cinematographer John Mathieson fills every frame with a distinct neon vibrancy or the hazy glow of sunlight. In the quieter moments (if you can call moments where four-armed wrestling humanoids direct traffic “quiet”), one feels fully immersed in a brand new world.
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Yet, if only the same could be said about the human characters. Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith) is Detective Pikachu’s central human figure, an everyman insurance agent who doesn’t really aspire to anything except his next promotion. By the time the movie starts, he’s given up on becoming a Pokémon trainer and is only pulled back into the game when he stumbles upon the Reynold’s Pikachu, an amnesiac detective looking for his former partner (who just happens to be Tim’s dad). Together, they investigate the lower levels of Ryme City, a Day-Glo metropolis founded by Howard Clifford, played by Bill Nighy, who is admirably trying something new even if it doesn’t land.
The difference in personality between Tim and Pikachu is night and day. Reynold’s performance is quick-witted and mischievous, and most importantly, the man can land a joke. Tim, however, is easily annoyed and somewhat subdued. He may have just lost his father, but you wouldn’t know it from Smith’s performance. Hollywood seems to have a major self-serious protagonist problem lately, and filmmakers seem to forget that just because your hero refuses a call to action doesn’t mean their performance has to be agitated and forgettable.
Other characters, like Kathryn Newton’s junior reporter Lucy Stevens and Chris Geere’s slimy Roger Clifford, are your stereotypically loud one-note characters. They seemed to have made a performance choice and stuck with it, but they barely stand out. Ken Watanabe, meanwhile, is given very little to do beside pet his cuddly pink Snubull, which is honestly a sentence I feel fortunate to have written.
The world surrounding these lackluster characters manages to lift them up until the film’s third act, where an overly complicated villainous plot comes together only to unravel almost all of the goodwill the writers built up. It doesn’t completely tank the movie, but it’s an unintentionally silly series of events that turns a small-scale story into one of global domination—I think? Maybe? The film barely explains what the villain is actually trying to accomplish and while the script may have no issue establishing what a Psyduck is, it can’t stick the landing of a relatively simple caper.
The Pokémon brand is strong enough that I’m sure this movie will give Avengers: Endgame a one-week run for its money at the box office. Its easy-bake nostalgia isn’t cynical, and we can all be appreciative of that. For the first outing in what I’m sure will become a larger cinematic universe, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a weird, quirky little launching pad, and it almost works. I’m fully on board for any future films, be it a direct follow-up or maybe a silver screen introduction to our good friend Ash. I just hope the next movie will color in its human character as vibrant as the rest of the world of Pokémon.
As far as introducing us to the live-action world of Pokémon, Detective Pikachu is a critical hit. If only its human characters were as vibrant and interesting.