By Thom Ernst
Despite the future-noir, overtones, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a dedicated family film filled with adorable creatures and an affirming message of belonging.
Unfortunately, its commitment to the Pokemon franchise, a role-playing game that’s been around since 1996, tends to bog the story down with insider references. Knowing the game before going into the film becomes more of a prerequisite than an asset.
Those immersed in the Pokemon universe might delight in the movie as it marches out familiar characters the likes of Mr. Mime, Psychduck, Charmander, Squirtle, and Pikachu, while those uninitiated in the ways of Pokemon-lore will long for access to a glossary and character outline.
One of the film’s more impressive elements is the Blade Runner-lite setting of Ryme City, a fantasy world where Pokemon characters co-exist with humans. Ryme City is a kaleidoscope of lights, towering buildings, and gangs of anime characters who roam the back alleys like rural wildlife.
Less impressive is the film’s soft-boiled detective story. The movie makes a few pleasant nods towards film noir but fails to hit its mark.
It’s a simple story involving a young man (Justice Smith) unraveling the mystery behind his estranged father’s suspicious death. But the film’s dedication to the Pokemon franchise flings the narrative into a dizzying and almost hallucinogenic mash of brand-named characters playing off of real-life counterparts.
It’s sad to see veteran actors Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe reduced to playing characters who are practically secondary to neurotic ducks and angry monkeys. Smith doesn’t fare much better in his role as Tim Goodman, the wayward son in search of his father. Granted his efforts pale playing next to Pikachu the large-eyed, affectionate, rodent-like creature sporting a deerstalker that even non-Pokemon fans recognize.
Pikachu is a charming enough character to carry viewers through the film’s hour and 45-minute run, thanks to the voice talent of Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds manages a lot with the little he’s given. The script is weak, but Reynold finds a tone to properly endear Pikachu to both children and adults (although adults familiar with Reynold’s potty-mouth anti-hero Deadpool might be distracted by the startling contrast between Deadpool’s caustic banter with Pikachu’s gentle wit).
Pokemon Detective Pikachu doesn’t quite manage to create a coherent story out of its convoluted mythology, and its playful winks at the detective genre feel misplaced. But the lack of authenticity to noir films is unlikely to deter the preteen card-carrying Pokemon fans that the movie is targeting.
And as for being naïve on the intricate details of Pokemon culture? Well, you only have yourself to blame for that.