Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is the first video game movie that feels like it wants to sit down and play with you. It doesn’t settle for simply putting blobs of CGI on screen that barely resemble the beloved pocket monsters. It lovingly re-creates them, and lets its audience live inside a visually stunning world that a handheld console could never contain. In fact, the sprawling Ryme City is so full of life that it only starts to shrivel once we go inwards to focus on one particular Pokémon, even if that Pokémon is an adorable little fluffer with a comedy icon in his lungs.
It takes a minute to find Mr. Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), as we’re initially subjected to the drab story of one Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), an insurance office zombie with former dreams of Pokémon training. When he finds out that his estranged father may or may not have survived a horrific car wreck, he heads from his small town to the land of the living, where we meet our titular sleuth. Unfortunately, his memory is almost as fuzzy as his is.
If nothing else, this effects team can pat themselves on the bat for creating one of the most adorable and expressive CGI protagonists ever put to film. Reynolds delivers his signature mile a minute wit, but softens his edges just enough to come across more cuddly than caustic. Unfortunately, the jokes themselves are often not quite strong enough to match his delivery. After a while, Pikachu isn’t a so much a detective as he is a manifestation of the loud guy in the audience who wants to point out things on screen we all see.
While the emotional connection between Pikachu and Tim is well written enough to power through, Justice Smith is never comes across as much more than a guy standing in the way of the Pokémon. While its key to the story for Tim to be damaged, Smith never livens that dourness up with anything to draw us in. He just aimlessly shuffles through each scene, seemingly exhausted with having to keep up with Reynolds. It’s a shame that the lead role didn’t go to Kathryn Newton, who provides some much needed screen presence with her perfectly measured turn as a spunky news intern desperate to find a true crime story that will pull her upwards. It’s glaringly obvious that she would be a much stronger complement to Reynolds, and the film suffers for it.
Thankfully, the film comes alive whenever director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) lets the impressive world building take the driver’s seat. Rhyme City pulses with life in every frame, giving us a playground that feels gritty but never grim. Any given shot of a city street or local dive is teaming with adorable sight gags, enough to where only repeat viewers will catch ‘em all. Regardless of if they’re on screen for half a second or a few minutes, all of the Pokémon are brimming with personality. Some are goofy, some are scary, some are awe inspiring and a few are all of the above.
The action sequences strike a perfect balance between intense and wacky. While there’s not as many of the franchise’s signature one on one battles as one might expect, visual spectacles like the chase sequence involving a godlike Pokemon with an entire cliff face on his back make up for it in spades while Henry Jackman’s terrific synth based score emulates the tracks that have played over our best video game close calls. Letterman also does a terrific job honoring the turn based combat style of the games, with each of the Pokémon’s signature moves requiring a bit more finesse than typical CGI creature brawls.
While Detective Pikachu’s undeniable style carries its humdrum story, it always powers through with sheer force of its sincerity. This earnestness ultimately wins out, with an absolutely bonkers final twist that is delivered with such conviction that one can’t help but admire it. Above all else. this is a love letter to those who spent years catching Pokemon on the school bus, on their couch, and outside a Starbucks. It may not fully transcend the video game movie curse, but it does point to a brighter future where those with a passion for the medium finally take the wheel.