One of the prevailing disappointments in the long, unfruitful history of adapting video games into feature films is how lacking they are in genuine weirdness. If a game has “cinematic” qualities, the movie version will often feel like a pointless, inexpressive translation: from movies to games and back to movies again. The peculiarities of, say, the Assassin’s Creed mythology become just another block of scrolling backstory.
This dreary backwards engineering is not a problem with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu—at least not conceptually. For that matter, it wasn’t a problem with Pokémon: The First Movie, the animated version of the long-running card- and video-game series, which was very much a sop to its young fans (and an oddity to the unconverted) when it appeared in movie theaters about 20 years ago. This new, more lavish Pokémon aims to go further. It isn’t content to re-adapt the same material with a bigger budget, instead taking as its inspiration a recent narrative adventure game, in which a diminutive talking Pikachu works with a human partner to solve a mystery.
In other words, this is a live-action/animation hybrid where a Pikachu, one of those furry, yellow, rosy-cheeked balls of adorability with an electric bolt tail, walks around wearing a tiny deerstalker hat. If that weren’t enough, it’s also a movie where packs of Squirtles help put out a fire in the background, and a Psyduck rides in the backseat of a car, looking worried. Detective Pikachu is positively cutting edge in the field of cuteness effects.
The movie is set in a world where Pokémon of all shapes, sizes, and huggabilities peacefully coexist with humans, and monster-on-monster battles are officially banned. Some of the creatures live in the wild, while larger numbers congregate—cutely, of course—in Ryme City, which is basically Zootopia for Pokémon and humans. That’s where young Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) arrives to deal with his semi-estranged father, who has turned up dead—or is he missing? Given that Tim’s father was a cop, his colleagues are surprisingly unforthcoming about the specifics, presuming that he’s dead from a car crash yet blasé (or just plain uncommunicative) about the lack of a body, or even funeral plans. Tim doesn’t go through any appreciable grieving process because Pokémon: Detective Pikachu doesn’t truly care whether his father is dead, or, especially, how complicated his feelings might be.
Maybe the filmmakers are just in a hurry to pair Tim with the aforementioned hat-wearing Pikachu, who was also his father’s intrepid partner, so they can solve the mystery together. (The coffee-guzzling Pikachu has amassed quite a collection of mostly-unhelpful case files.) Tim is particularly well-suited to partner up with Detective Pikachu, because only he can understand the creature’s usual eponymous utterances (e.g., “pika, pika!”) as English-language wisecrackery (provided, appropriately, by Ryan Reynolds). Once they get together, instead of actually mixing Pokémon with the noir tropes on hand (amnesia, urban conspiracies), director Rob Letterman performs a strange pantomime of what the filmmakers appear to half-remember from other cartoons that goof on detective fiction.
Take poor Kathryn Newton, playing the nosy reporter Lucy Stevens. She’s introduced wavering between the cadences of a hard-boiled noir dame and a spitfire screwball-comedy newspaper reporter, until she (or the movie) appears to give up after a few minutes and just have Lucy exhibit standard, intermittent love-interest pluck. There’s a good gag about the actual nature of her employment (which may involve more listicles than investigative reporting), but the movie promptly blows it by neglecting the setup for a later payoff; it’s an early red flag of Detective Pikachu’s impatience. Most of this mystery’s investigations involve characters sitting around, watching complicated expository holograms—somehow both overelaborate and lazy compared to a standard flashback sequence (which at least tend to involve detectives doing some needling or coercing).
Far too quickly, Detective Pikachu drifts away from its Pokémon-heavy cityscape in favor of some uninspired forest destruction and lab skulking. This is not a spoiler, but it is a warning; the bonkers promise of pocket monsters skittering through stylishly lit back alleys, mixing it up with shady characters and private eyes, goes largely unrealized. Instead, Detective Pikachu settles into the generic rhythms of a second-tier ’80s cop movie—in other words, noir for dummies.
Or, to be fair, noir for kids. This is very much a children’s film, in that it’s noisy, simplistic, and maintains a willful ignorance about how even a fake version of the adult world would operate. Tim seems like he’s supposed to be around Smith’s actual early-20s age, but could just as easily be 17, or 10. He and the other actors (including expert supporting players like Ken Watanbe and Bill Nighy) are hamstrung, lacking any discernible point of view to express. Most of the movie’s personality is allocated to Reynolds doing Deadpool Lite, with the rest spread across a menagerie that mostly amount to sight gags.
At least the Pokémon look great, rendered in half-realistic, half-cartoony CG. If the filmmakers actually followed through on their conceptual weirdness, this might have been something fun and distinctive—a kid-friendly detective story on the order of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But once Detective Pikachu starts going through the motions, it can’t seem to stop, until the whole thing turns into a series of empty gestures. The movie tries to sound like a comedy (especially when Reynolds is talking), look like a noir, and act like a big summer blockbuster. It ends up a whole lot of cute, branded nothing—watchable junk for young adults of tomorrow to look back on with inordinate fondness.