Video game movies have a tumultuous history of never quite managing to marry what fans love about the games they’re inspired by with a compelling narrative that won’t alienate the unfamiliar. Detective Pikachu manages to succeed at this long-sought combo by pairing a pretty standard family film with some incredibly cute stars. Mostly.
Despite being the titular character, Ryan Reynolds’ talking electric mouse isn’t really the star of Rob Letterman’s Detective Pikachu, which is loosely based on the 2016 Nintendo 3DS game of the same name. Instead, it’s Tim Goodman.
Tim, played by Justice Smith, is a quiet young insurance salesman, living in the quiet small town his grandparents live in, while all his friends move on to live in the big city or do the things people do in a world where pocket-sized balls containing wild monsters exist: Go on big adventures wherein you capture, train, and fight with those wild monsters! Tim is a man who lives in the beautifully weird world of the Pokémon games but doesn’t really want anything to do with the creatures. This is mainly because his father Harry—a detective living in Ryme City, an urban sprawl crafted specifically for humans to co-exist with Pokémon as pets, friends, and even work colleagues, rather than as creatures for battles—drifted apart from his son out of a mix of dedication to his work and fascination with the world of cutesy critters around him.
When Harry goes missing while tackling a case involving the developer of Ryme City and his son (played by Bill Nighy and Chris Geere, respectively) and the mysterious legendary Pokémon Mewtwo, Tim finds himself thrust into an adventure that doesn’t just require him trying to navigate his complex feelings about his father, but requires him to re-open his heart to the wanderlust and joy of Pokémon he had long left in his past. He does this alongside a plucky young blogger named Lucy (Kathryn Newton) on the hunt for the truth behind Harry’s disappearance, and the talking Pikachu he encounters, who only Tim can understand.
Smith turns in a cracking performance, especially cracking considering his partner for much of the film is a fluffy computer-generated mouse—even if said mouse is voiced by Ryan Reynolds, who offers a likewise electric (sorry not sorry) performance that successfully balances a tight line between being legitimately cute and coming across like a PG-rated Deadpool repeat. Smith sells not just how and why someone who’s gone through family traumas like Tim has would want to cut himself off from the earnest, joyful co-operation the Pokémon world celebrates, but how someone in his position can grow to value the importance of the bond of friendship, and the need for a romantic sense of wanderlust, all over again, simply by re-entering this crazy world, and letting it back into his heart.
It’s in this arc in particular that Detective Pikachu’s earnest joy for Pokémon as a concept shines on full display, in part because the film’s crazy world is incredibly and lovingly crafted. And not just from a technical level, as it jam packs the screen with oodles of furry, scaley, sometimes very gross-looking realistic renditions of Pokémon from across the entire franchise (although with an admitted focus on creatures from the original 151 Pokémon of the first games in the series, Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue). But it’s also down to the fact that the movie comes from a place of great love and understanding for the simple joy of what Pokémon represents.
How and why the human denizens of Ryme City would love these powerful, sometimes godlike creatures as if they’re just a particularly rambunctious puppy or kitten is made immediately clear in almost every scene of the movie. There’s an almost overwhelming background radiation of joy as Jigglypuffs, Charmanders, Arcanines, Snubbulls, and Lucy’s particularly standout Psyduck (perhaps the true MVPokémon of the movie) potter about and do cute things with their human pals. And even if you don’t know what those names actually mean, they’re all suitably compelling enough designs—faithfully adapted from the source material—that you at least can understand the charm of it all.
Unfortunately the surface level charm Detective Pikachu assaults you with in its cavalcade of cartoon critters primarily exists to mask a story that meanders between a predictable familiarity, a tone that oddly whiplashes between humor and heartbreak, and a completely bonkers third act climax the movie pulls seemingly out of nowhere and never really earns, narratively. You can see the beats of the mystery surrounding Harry Goodman’s disappearance coming from a million miles away, because it’s the same kind of story that’s been told a thousand times before. And when Detective Pikachu does try to throw a few curveballs here and there to shake things up, it’s mainly about throwing up layers of obfuscation around that core mystery it eventually reveals never actually mattered in the first place.
Whether or not you feel like the movie’s realistic take on the classic designs of one of the most beloved gaming properties are cute (or at least a bizarre mix of adorable and horrifying) will probably have a major impact on whether or not you walk out of Detective Pikachu satisfied by its love of Pokémon’s thematic ideals—the power of teamwork, the sense of adventure, the almighty bond between creature and partner—or frustrated by its weird-yet-weirdly-predictable narrative. It’s a bit messily put together while never really doing anything particularly bold enough to warrant that messiness, but it hopes to god that the sheer adorableness of the world it succeeds in building around that narrative is enough for you to either forget or forgive that the actual plot of the movie isn’t exactly worth remembering.
Detective Pikachu gets away with a lot thanks to the cute critters that populate its world—which, in many ways, is a lot like Pokémon as a franchise at large. The Pokémon games have gotten by (to massive success) on remaining essentially the same kind of games they have been since it all started with Red and Blue decades ago, due to the fact that each small step a new entry in the franchise takes brings with it more insanely adorable monsters to catch (and you gotta catch ‘em all!). In Pokémon, change is iterative rather than particularly drastic—bold steps are few and far between, because why fix a formula that still works over two decades later?
Detective Pikachu is much the same, shaping its loving realization of the Pokémon nation around a predictably familiar story about fathers and sons, and a mystery that’s never actually quite mysterious enough to keep you invested beyond the bare minimum requirement. This works when you consider that Detective Pikachu’s target audience is more so the kids playing the games and watching the cartoons today rather than their parents (unless said parents are diehard Pokéfans who cut their teeth on Ash’s original adventures and Red and Blue, of course.).
Detective Pikachu isn’t really trying to be a movie you think about beyond its most basic beats—and that’s what makes it work, even if it ultimately means that it takes the crown of “Best Video Game Movie” simply by being basically competent rather than because it can truly shine on its own merits. If you’ve ever in your life, even for just a moment, been touched by the simple joy of Pokémon, then Detective Pikachu makes it clear that it understands you, and why you got that spark of joy in the first place. It just hopes that it understands you enough to mask its otherwise messy, relatively humdrum tale.
Detective Pikachu hits theaters May 10.
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