In the climax of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, Tim (Justice Smith) squares off against the amorphous blob Pokémon Ditto. His adversary can take any form it desires, a tough, no-nonsense bodyguard, an angry bird of prey, or even our hero’s crush. The movie, much like Ditto, never decides what or who it is meant to be for long.
The movie’s human protagonist Tim journeys to the Tokyo-esque, futuristic utopia of Ryme City, where humans and Pokémon don’t participate in battles, but live side by side. Tim is drawn into a larger mystery and conspiracy after his detective father Harry goes missing during a case and is presumed dead. Justice Smith has the difficult role of playing a human protagonist who has to dislike and fear Pokémon for the first half of the movie. To his credit, he does a strong job at balancing drama with uptight comedy. In a video game series known for casually dad-less leads, Smith is refreshing in how he embodies the angst of his character’s daddy issues.
Ryan Reynolds’ Pikachu–while extremely similar to his portrayal of the Marvel antihero Deadpool–manages to shine as a likeable hero with moxie. When not delivering ridiculous one-liners (I caught references to both cocaine and putting out on a first date that had me snorting because I never thought I would hear them from Pikachu’s mouth), he exudes expressiveness. In moments of loss or sadness, Pikachu’s face couldn’t be more relatable.
Kathryn Newton plays Lucy Stevens, a hyperactive take on the belittled, underappreciated female journalist. The script constantly goes out of its way to show how undermined she is without building a personality for her. Her Pokémon partner is the equally quirky, equally useful-as-the-plot-demands Psyduck.
Both human leads are meant to be in their twenties, but their interactions and personalities come across as much, much younger. I wonder if the film would have done better to age them down a bit.
Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Chris Geere, Omar Chaparro, Suki Waterhouse, and Rita Ora round out the bland, supporting human cast. Watanabe, an Academy Award winner, feels especially tragically underutilized as a well-intentioned, yet ineffectual police lieutenant. Besides Lucy, the other female characters barely have enough lines or screen-time to make a mark.
I am a HUGE Pokémon fan, still avidly playing the games well into my twenties. The childhood gamer in me loved seeing old classics like Jigglypuff, Charizard, or Snubble brought to life alongside newer additions like Torterra or Braviary. The film does a wonderful job at imagining what coexistence with Pokémon would be like, painting charming yet realistic interactions slice-of-life interactions. I have to give credit to the animators–they did an excellent job at developing real-looking, diverse creatures that never leave a dull moment on frame.
Detective Pikachu‘s fight sequences also demonstrate how terrifying living in a world with Pokémon can be if you don’t have any to protect you. Karan Soni from Deadpool appears early on in a scene where he tries to help Tim catch a Cubone. It’s a lively, fun throwback to the games. Simple yet well-executed scenes like that are when the movie is at its best.
Unfortunately, the plot managed to be just a bit too flimsy for me to enjoy as an adult. The film provides only two extremely obvious candidates for potential villain in a mystery with more CGI ambushes than true twists. When the true antagonist reared their head, I found myself more perplexed than awed by their insane plan, which felts bizarre and over the top even for the Pokémon universe.
The creation and distribution of a drug called R that turns Pokémon into unstable fighting machines, one of the film’s major mysteries, comes right from the Detective Pikachu video game. It’s one of several darker plot points alongside attempted murder, bodily possession, unethical experimentation, cancer, and grief. I felt like the movie was mired in the middle ground between a family fantasy film and a darker mystery thriller.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a colorful, crowd-pleasing debut for Nintendo’s beloved creatures. Ryan Reynolds is at his snarky, silly best as the titular character, and Justice Smith is a worthy scene partner. While the plot and supporting human cast feel woefully underdeveloped, it’s a great Volt Tackle forward for the franchise!
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu will start electrifying American theaters on May 10th!