Detective Pikachu is a film that banks heavy off its nostalgia in more ways than one. Sure, there’s the obvious adult relation for those who grew up playing the game in the 1990s, so attuned most know the TV series’ iconic theme song and lengthy PokeRap by heart. The film is bursting with so many of these familiar pocket monsters but there’s also a familiar odor. As the film progresses, it can be felt heavier until the third act pulls off the mask of a neo-noir to reveal the clunky blockbuster showcase the original Pokemon movies used to be. To this degree, the adoration of the picture relies a great deal on how much one can forgive of the loose logic and clunky allegories of the first batch of Pokemon movies.
Though it’s a disappointment that the film stumbles into this nutty action formula once more, it’s all the most frustrating when there’s some great style and surprising takes for the first half of what we’re led to believe is a detective movie. The story mostly takes place around Ryme City, a metropolis built on the basis that human and Pokemon can co-exist without battles to form a utopia. This is an astounding idea and feels like the logical next step from the original anime series and movies that always relied on fighting tournaments of the cuddly monsters. No longer bound by battles, Granbulls can help with police procedures and Squirtles can act as members of the fire department.
It’s just too bad that young adult Tim (Justice Smith) can’t enjoy all these amazing sights. He’s been grieving over the recent loss of his father in car crash, stinging all the more considering his rocky history with his father and the tragic loss of his mother from childhood. Tim finds himself alone, forlorn, and denying his feelings, letting them all spill out in his dad’s apartment.
But then something strange happens. A mysterious vile of weird gas causes Pokemon to freak out and attack him. Even weirder, a Pikachu pops up who sounds like Ryan Reynolds who only Tim can understand. Though the Pikachu has severe memory loss, his natural detective instincts tell him that Tim’s father may not be dead. A mystery is afoot.
That premise sounds solid enough, with a meekly mourning man and his slick-talking Pokemon trying to solve a case of covered-up murder. It’s even staged brilliantly as they seem to do most of their work at night, where Ryme City looks a little more like Blade Runner even with all the goofy looking Pokemon ambling in every corner. They interrogate Pokemon that are tough to crack. They take a trip to an underground Pokemon cage-match arena where illegal battles are held. They even have a moment to slow down and take in the gravity of Tim loosing his father.
Then the second half kicks in and that whole detective angle devolves into more of a sloppy summer blockbuster. What they uncover involves science experiments gone wrong, monster Pokemon, explosive battles, mad-dashes across crumbling cliffs, and a villain scheme so ludicrous of plans and powers it could only dwell with in the wonky mechanics of Pokemon.
One may look at this structure and equate Detective Pikachu to the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit considering the similar angle that starts straight and progressively wraps in the absurdity with the mystery. But there’s a distinct lack of earnest where it feels more like a traditional Pokemon film trying to slap on a suit and fedora that doesn’t quite fit. Tim and Pikachu befriend a reporter Lucy who is such a bumbling amateur reporter she gives off more of a Nickelodeon sitcom vibe than that of a struggling journalist. Similarly, any time some bad guys in black suits and sunglasses pop up as intimidation, all I could think of was just a bunch of actors playing dress-up.
There are times when the film works rather well. Tim and Pikachu connect at a midnight bar where a Jigglypuff sings to sleep a customer in the corner. The duo eventually venture through a beautiful forest of different magical Pokemon with a whimsically calm joy. But all of these great moments feel like they’re from much different movies, as the story continues on its manic path of rattled exposition, to the point where Smith is mostly bumbling and Ryan Reynolds can do little more than give the low-key Reynolds jabs. Perhaps if Detective Pikachu had the follow-through to be, you know, a detective movie, it might have made for a compellingly unique live-action production of the Pokemon franchise. But what ultimately ends up on screen is more of the same mundane and mindless Pokemon movies with bits and pieces of better films strewn throughout its VFX-heavy scenes.