‘Pokemon Detective Pikachu’ is good sleuthing fun for all

Detective Pikachu artwork by Scott Straka
Scott Straka (@scottstrakaart)

“Often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain.” – Carl Jung

The transition of the Pokemon franchise from video games to the film world has been rocky. Starting with a seizure-inducing anime series and features based on that series which were excoriated by the press, things weren’t looking up. But for over 20 years it has persevered, with frequent new animated works and now a live action picture.

Although Pokemon Detective Pikachu doesn’t provide anything all that deeper or meaningful, it’s great fun for kids and even adults might find themselves caught up.  Based on one of the more recent games where the title character can speak in English to the protagonist (as opposed to just its name over and over), it’s about solving a mystery rather than catching them all.

Suburban insurance salesman Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) gets a call one day that his father, a detective in Ryme City, is presumed dead. He heads there himself to find more information and sees that the city is a place where the Pokemon are integrated among humans. As such, his father’s partner Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) soon crosses his path and the two set out to uncover what happened. 

Another flaw of Avengers: Endgame that I forgot to mention in the review is that those unfamiliar would be completely lost. For a series like Pokemon which has gone on for decades and featured hundreds upon hundreds of creatures, the risk of that is certainly here. Ultimately though, Detective Pikachu is quite accessible to those outside the fandom since the mystery plot guiding the film stays its course. At most, there will be moments where a Pokemon is put in a certain situation in which anyone without prior knowledge would not understand why that would be fitting or funny. 

The onscreen looks of the creatures are a mixed bag. While Pikachu himself and a few of the other Pokemon types are very well-realized, the rest come off as too artificial. Fortunately, the rest of the effects are more than up to par and the action-y parts are plenty exciting. Director Rob Letterman, late of the also surprisingly delightful Goosebumps, keeps things moving at a good clip while slowing things down at the appropriate times. 

As brought up earlier, this movie is one that plays best to a younger crowd. Older viewers may be wise to where some things are headed (there are, however, still some things to throw them off) or be familiar with certain plot elements and tropes used. This is a straightforward old fashioned mystery instead of a subversion or deconstruction of one, and as such it’s a great gateway into the genre for the uninitiated (i.e. kids). Having said that, the swearing (mild though it may be) and innuendos (particularly one for suggesting some dark violence) should have been done without.

The voice work from Reynolds is quite good – with a friendly cadence suiting the vibe –  but he seems to have been cast primarily because of Deadpool and gets tasked with retreading that kind of schtick. Sometimes the lines can be funny, but the self-referential moments feel off here since this really isn’t that kind of material. Part of me also feels that a character/voice actor without a celebrity presence (or for that matter the game’s actor Kaiji Tang) might have been a better choice. Although a mismatch to his game counterpart, Smith is a capable anchor. The real standout is Kathryn Newton. Filling an Emilia Christie-esque role as a wannabe reporter, she’s endearing, funny, and all business, a perfect match to the tone.

While not quite bringing about a Silent Hill or Rampage sort of revelation that films based on video games can be good (granted, that’s mainly due to those paving the way), Detective Pikachu is miles ahead of its ilk in that regard. Move over, Strokemon; the true live action version has arrived.

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