'Detective Pikachu' Is Almost a Perfect Movie. The Only Problem Is Pikachu.
Poké Balls are illegal in Ryme City. That should be your first clue this is no ordinary video game movie. The sprawling metropolis where Detective Pikachu takes place presents itself as a paradise for humans and Pokémon to live in harmony, but that veneer of civility quickly washes away as the initial CGI-Pokémon fan service transforms into a genuinely thrilling neo-noir adventure.
Directed by Rob Letterman, Detective Pikachu is funny, emotional, sometimes dark, and surprisingly mature. The only thing holding this movie back is a lackluster performance from Ryan Reynolds (Detective Pikachu himself) who seems to be on Deadpool-for-kids autopilot in what could have been his most iconic role to date. Otherwise, it’s damn near perfect.
Light spoilers for Detective Pikachu ahead.
"The best part of this movie is simply living in the world it creates.
Detective Pikachu actually begins with a Poké Ball. After a dark first scene featuring a high speed car chase and a homicidal Mewtwo, the action shifts to the type of small town where these stories usually kick off. Tim Goodman, a young insurance agent played by Justice Smith, is lured out into the woods by his friend who’s worried that Tim still hasn’t caught any Pokémon. The attempt goes poorly, and Tim returns to his boring Pokémon-free life — until the death of his absentee father sends him straight to Ryme City.
From here the story moves quickly. Tim is initially determined to simply empty out his dad’s old apartment and head home, but after the appearance of a Pikachu he can mysteriously communicate with (no one else in this world can talk to Pokémon) and an ambitious blogger named Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), he’s dragged into solving the mystery that caught up with his father.
There really is a decent mystery at the heart of Detective Pikachu, with more that a few twists you probably won’t see coming, but the best part of this movie is simply living in the world it creates. Shot on film (not digitally), Ryme City and the surrounding areas look stunning, and the computer-generated Pokémon superimposed into almost every shot are just as impressive.
Pikachu is exactly as adorable as you’d think. A wild herd of Bulbasaur are mesmerizing. Lickitung, with its clammy pink body and oversized tongue, is just as gross as you’d imagine. Charizard is a terrifying dragon, and Ditto, with its ability to transform into any other Pokémon, is creepy as hell.
One scene, set in a bustling night market, is particularly captivating. The crowded rows of food stalls, inspired by Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, feature a mix of humans and Pokémon cooking up various snacks. I could have spent hours exploring the stalls. Instead, it’s just the backdrop for a single scene. There’s also an illegal Pokémon fight club where trainers dose their Pokémon rage-inducing drugs, a secret lab with genetically modified monsters, and a massive parade featuring giant Poké-floats manned by actual Pokémon.
For a PG-rated movie, Detective Pikachu is also surprisingly mature. In one scene, Tim and Pikachu interrogate a Mr. Mime by dousing it in gasoline and threatening to light a match (they’re only miming, but still). The mystery also centers around an illegal drug that turns normally well-behaved Pokémon into violent monsters. There’s even a pretty intelligent subplot about the dangers of state-run media; Ryme City’s “visionary” founder and resident rich guy also owns the news, making it impossible to report on corruption at the highest levels.
Now it’s time to talk about Pikachu. For everything this movie does right (and it’s a lot!), the movie’s biggest flaw is also its biggest star. Ryan Reynolds voices the Nintendo mascot, but it’s a surprisingly vanilla performance from the actor best known as the foul-mouthed Deadpool. He’s got a few decent lines — in one particularly hilarious scene, Reynolds sings the Pokémon theme song while choking back tears — but for the most part it’s just dumb CGI’d physical comedy and the same joke about how much Pikachu loves coffee repeated over and over.
Reynolds might have been the safe choice, but it’s too bad Detective Pikachu didn’t cast someone a little more interesting. The internet’s obsession with putting Danny Devito in the role was mostly just a joke, but it would have worked. Instead, we got an extremely boring Pikachu who says things like “I feel it in my jellies” and expects the audience to laugh.
The rest of the cast does plenty of heavy lifting, especially considering the difficulty of acting opposite various CGI creatures. Smith and Newton are both young actors with obvious talent, but the true star is Ken Watanabe, who plays a grizzled police lieutenant with a fluffy, but equally grouchy Pokémon sidekick (a giant pink thing that growls and stares bullets at Smith the first time they meet).
Maybe I’m overblowing my disappointment with Reynolds. There’s nothing particularly offensive in the way he plays Pikachu, and he does more than enough to keep the plot moving. But it’s frustrating to imagine what Detective Pikachu might have achieved. We really almost got the impossible: a perfect video game movie. Instead, it’s just great.
Detective Pikachu hits theaters on May 10.