Live action video game adaptations have generally not had a good run on the big screen, and the Pokémon films have similarly had a poor reputation. However Pokémon: Detective Pikachu manages to break that curse, bursting out of its Poké Ball with some solid world-building, and a charismatic lead.
When his police detective father is killed during the course of an investigation, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) heads to Rhyme city to put his family affairs in order. There he finds a unique environment that has come to promote equality and harmony between the human and Pokémon inhabitants, built on the work of its founder Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy). However, the idyllic city harbours a dark side, a secret that Tim becomes aware of when he finds his father’s amnesiac partner going through his dad’s case files one night. A Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), that was presumed killed in the same accident that claimed his father, and one that for some inexplicable reason, he can understand.
With Pikachu quoting Seinfeld we may have reached peak 90s here, but there’s still an enjoyable ride to be had. Sure it’s a boilerplate film noir plot, strapped onto a Japanese video game adaptation, with hints of a buddy cop action comedy, but it really does manage to deliver, melding those disparate elements into a cohesive whole. After all, it’s hard not to respect a film that is equally at home referencing Double Indemnity as it is referencing Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back… or perhaps it is, but Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is so infectiously charming that you want to give it props for that anyway. After all, this is not the first time we’ve seen such a melding of these vastly different genres (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Zootopia), and this latest outing doesn’t fall far from the tree, but it does all hold together as a mystery, in the logical confines that the world has set.
Part of that appeal is the painstaking world building that Pokémon: Detective Pikachu does. We are quickly introduced to the world of Rhyme city and its distinctive attitude to Pokémon/ human relationships and allowed to experience it through some fantastic animation that brings the classic character design to life. Part of that appeal is the tight pacing, with the film never managing to outstay its welcome in any sequence, as it establishes both character and plot with an economy of style.
Most of that appeal is Ryan Reynolds as the spark inducing yellow rodent with a taste for coffee, and an inclination to solve crime. As he’s shown with “the merc with the mouth” (Deadpool), Reynolds’ rapid diatribes and asides are entertaining and captivating in their own right. Even working in child-friendly form, he produces some great comedy here, managing to bring a manic energy and worldly voice to Pikachu. Smith is a little less successful, but certainly plays better when he’s not over-egging the exasperated partner for comedic effect. As either a grieving son trying to ignore the pain and disappointment, or seeking retribution, he’s actually quite good.
The most kiddie friendly take you will ever see of a man teaming up with his murdered father’s police partner to infiltrate an underground animal fighting ring, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu manages to cater to both its younger and older audiences, striking a balance between action, fun, and Pokémon nostalgia.