The decision to fill a potentially generic, kid-focused toy adaptation with the quippy charm of Ryan Reynolds seems, on its face, the most cynical, sure-to-backfire outcome of the four quadrant mentality. The fact that it works as well as it does is just one of the magic tricks Pokémon: Detective Pikachu pulls off. A full numbing 105 minutes of pure sound and furry - everything is worth seeing in Pokemon Detective Pikachu. Those deeply invested in the franchise will likely find bits to like, but in terms of fashioning a memorable live-action version, alas, that's not in the cards.
For the uninitiated, the world is filled with Pocket Monsters or Pokémon, fun and potentially dangerous magical creatures with a variety of abilities. For centuries mankind has been capturing and taming these creatures in order to force them to fight each other in vicious gladiatorial battles for our amusement. In Ryme City, however, Pokémon battling is illegal leaving the creatures to live happily alongside mankind.
When ace detective Harry Goodman goes mysteriously missing, prompting his 21-year-old son Tim to find out what happened. Young Tim Goodman (Smith) starts looking into his father’s mysterious death he discovers something rotten in Rime City. Aiding in the investigation is Harry's former Pokémon partner, Detective Pikachu (Reynolds): a hilariously wise-cracking, adorable super-sleuth who is a puzzlement even to himself.
Finding that they are uniquely equipped to communicate with one another, Tim and Pikachu join forces on a thrilling adventure to unravel the tangled mystery. Chasing clues together through the neon-lit streets of Ryme City - a sprawling, modern metropolis where humans and Pokémon live side by side in a hyper-realistic live-action world - they encounter a diverse cast of Pokémon characters and uncover a shocking plot that could destroy this peaceful co-existence and threaten the whole Pokémon universe.
There's definitely some violence: Pokémon battle both each other and humans, and there's destruction (including a fatal car crash) and injuries, but nothing gets bloody or graphics. Main characters are frequently in peril, but -- despite some close calls -- no one dies. Language is limited to "hell," "stupid," and "good God," and there's nothing more risque than flirting and a couple of double-meaning jokes (when Pikachu sees a shirtless man, he quips that all he can see is "tattoos and nipples"). The story promotes teamwork, courage, and friendship and shows how even the seemingly inexperienced can make a difference.
Detective Pikachu is a weird little container of contradictions. It’s a merchandising based tie-in with a big heart and a lot of charm; it’s a film focused on world building which doesn’t care if you understand its world; it’s a film which takes great liberties with its most famous character and yet never feels false.
Some of that is because Pikachu himself is just one part of a larger whole. More than anything else, Detective Pikachu is a chance to paint this world as a realistic landscape, one we can believe people inhabit and even want to inhabit ourselves. Director Rob Letterman succeeds by going against the grain of the original game as much as he goes with it but never going against its spirit. Rather than just showcase an endless array of creatures fighting each other (though plenty of that certainly happens), Letterman searches for different milieus’ to place them into organically. Sometimes they roam freely through a forest, sometimes they come creeping down from the ceiling like monsters in a horror film; they have variety not just in form but in function. And in that variety they have life.
Some of it is also because of Ryan Reynolds. Which doesn’t mean that Detective Pikachu is a Deadpool-like vehicle for Reynolds’ patented asides and one-liners (although it most certainly is). It’s that Reynolds’ buys into the world whole hog — making fun of everything in it but never questioning its reality — which allows us to buy into it as well, and in a way no other character manages. When Tim lists out the various abilities of various Pokémon it’s like someone reading from a card; when Pikachu does it, it’s just part of the world. That’s not entirely Smith’s fault as he not only has to play the straight man, but has to play it to a character who doesn’t exist and whose remarks he can’t really hear. (Actually when you put it that way, it’s quite a feat of performance.) And Smith does get his fair share of moments, particularly when Kathryn Newton’s Nancy Drew-like newshound Lucy shows up. They’re dialogue never rises too much above surface level, and neither of them have Reynolds facility for ad-lib, but charm and commitment count for a lot with this kind of material.
However, nothing about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu will make you like Pokémon if you don’t already. (And the same holds true for Ryan Reynolds). But if you’re already into both or either, its charms can’t be denied.