If you ask an American Pokémon fan how they first got into them, you’ll get one of three answers. In the late 1990s, there was an afternoon cartoon, a trading card game, and video games for Nintendo’s original Game Boy. It was a bombardment of merchandising and advertising, to the point where their imprint can still be felt today. That kind of savvy, broad appeal can also be found in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, a live-action children’s film based on the ubiquitous toys: the first generation of Pokémon fans are now old enough to have children of their own, creating new opportunities for generations to bond over Blastoise and Squirtle. In those terms, Detective Pikachu resists traditional criticism, and yet a better film could have been made from this undeniably adorable premise.
For the uninitiated, Pokémon is short for “pocket monsters.” They are weird animals of varying size that look somewhat similar to actual plants and animals. They also have magical powers. One can breathe fire, for example, while another can put humans to sleep. Detective Pikachu mostly takes place in Ryme City, a place where Pokémon and humans exist in harmony. It is never quite explained what purpose the Pokémon serve. Are they companions, pets, or do they serve some utility like seeing eye dogs? What policies are in place to handle their waste? Director Rob Letterman avoids such concerns, and counts on the simple pleasure of a human acting alongside absurd creatures.
This co-existence along with a procedural framework recalls Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a film where humans existed alongside two-dimensional cartoons like Mickey Mouse and Porky Pig. Instead of a private investigator and Roger Rabbit, our odd couple is Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) and a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who can speak English, instead of just repeating his name over and over. Both Tim and Pikachu are looking for Tim’s father, a police detective who has gone missing, and believed to be dead. Their search uncovers a secret with dire consequences for people and pocket monsters alike, and along the way Tim meets a hungry reporter named Lucy (Kathryn Newton) who sees a big story just out of reach.
Given the mediocre animation in the original Pokémon cartoon, it is surprising Detective Pikachu looks so great. Cinematographer John Mathieson shot on 35mm film, so it all the scenes have this rich detail that digitally shot film sometimes lack. It is a smart choice, one that evokes classic Hollywood detective films. That same attention goes to the Pokémon themselves, who have heft and tactile detail. Pikachu looks great, sort of like a dirty stuffed animal, and his eyes are expressive without being creepy (Letterman avoids the Uncanny Valley problem that plagues the early creature design of the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog film). Still, the film’s secret MVP is Psyduck, Lucy’s platypus-like Pokémon who, like Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, finds genuine range with a limited vocabulary.
All this world-building and attention to detail is ultimately in service of a story that’s borderline incoherent. Detective Pikachu has four credited screenwriters, and they are collectively unsure about whether they want a splashy adventure for children, or an actual mystery. The result an uneven amalgamation of the two: there are exposition dumps where we get too much background information, followed by chaotic action sequences where Pikachu, Tim, and the others struggle to survive. In fact, Pikachu is not much of a detective. Reynolds talks a good game, sort of like a half-ironic gumshoe, except all the big breaks in the case have no real investigation, or thrill of discovery. It will not surprise you to learn the film’s title is more cute than accurate.
Tim is a good audience surrogate. He knows about Pokémon, but he is skeptical of them, so he treats Pikachu with disdain that unfamiliar audience might also share. Detective Pikachu does not quite earn the rapport and friendship Tim has with his unlikely partner, so the emotional scenes are borne out of obligation, not organic character development. This is a film where you can feel the grind of the storytelling gears, whereas a more thoughtful film would make them more harmonious. There is enough throwaway comedy and fantastic imagery to divert younger audiences, or adults who dropped mind-altering substances. Either way, Pokémon are deeply weird the more you think about it, and Detective Pikachu is not quite involving enough to make you forget it.
Detective Pikachu opens Friday in theaters everywhere.