Did you know that Pokémon is already the highest grossing media franchise of all time? At 90 billion dollars in total franchise revenue, its total haul triples that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, eclipsing the net worth of Winnie the Pooh, Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse & Friends, Mario, and the entire Disney Princess collection. To say it’s an international sensation is to put it mildly. After the recent resurgence of the pocket monsters in the form of the popular augmented reality game Pokémon Go, Pokémon fever has been at a new all-time high and for the first time in nearly 20 years, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu marks the long-awaited return of Pokémon, Pokémon trainers, and their pokéballs of steel to the big screen.
The fourth film adaptation marks the first live-action outing and PG rating for the franchise with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu proving a somewhat redeeming anecdote to the long-standing video game adaptation curse. But those expecting a full-fledged remedy to crack the mystery of the curse will likely leave disappointed, as this simply is not a great movie by most metrics. A loose adaptation of the 2016 video game of the same name, Detective Pikachu takes liberties in setting and tone but neglects to evolve the story in ways that make it feel captivating or unique to audiences outside the inner circle of fandom. Credit John Mathieson’s (Gladiator, Logan) stark cinematography that basks the world of Ryme City in a cool neon sci-fi-noir glow a la Blade Runner and production designer Nigel Phelps (Batman) who constructs a convincing landscape wherein humans and Pokémon live harmoniously side by side for allowing Detective Pikachu promise, even if that promise goes mostly unfulfilled.
When the film directed by Rob Letterman (Shark Tale) and written by a small army that includes Letterman, Derek Connolly (Safety Not Guaranteed, Jurassic World), and duo Benji Samit and Dan Hernandez (The Tick) dives into the inner workings of Ryme City, a place where Pokémon and human live is closely entangled, Pokémon fighting of any sort is barred, and secret experiments stir in the shadows, it excels. World-building is this movie’s close friend and setting up the various rules that govern this world gives the movie a welcome transportive, even magical, flavor. The gumshoe elements of the first act serve as a decent narrative tool to guide us through this world but when it begins to expand beyond its noir roots, it stumbles into bland spectacle-driven action-adventure territory, tripping over itself as it loses the distinctive style it initially worked so hard to establish.
The story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a low-rent insurance salesman whose last name (he’s a Good Man, gettit?) suggests the intellectual shallows to which Detective Pikachu is known to stoop. Tim is summoned to Ryme City after news of his father’s mysterious death where he meets a talking Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) in a deerstalker hat and nosy wanna-be-reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton). The unlikely trio team up to solve the mystery of Tim’s father’s disappearance, uncovering a nonsensical conspiracy along the way, one that I’m struggling to make sense of even a full day later.
Reynolds deserves much of the credit for making Detective Pikachu work as well as it does, the Deadpool actor lending a kid-friendlier sarcastic riff track to the investigative goings-on, keeping things consistently light, entertaining and mildly funny, if rarely able to free any audible laughs. The human component is lacking at best, the characters undercooked and their plans mostly nonsensical whereas the onscreen interplay between the CG characters and live action components are hit or miss, the big spectacle pieces not always translating as well as should be expected, often falling into the unconvincing uncanny valley between live action and computer animation. But the heart of this z-shaped tale exists in the relationship established between Reynold’s wise-cracking Pika and Smith’s unwitting hero Tim and that works pretty well when all is said and done.
Dedicated fans of the series will get much more mileage than the Pokémon uninitiated and even with my cursory knowledge (I grew up playing that very first Gameboy cartridge), I was able to pick out various easter eggs that enriched the experience, with many more flying quickly overhead like a rogue Articuno. That said, Detective Pikachu is not the kind of movie that demands intimate acquaintance with each and every Pokémon under the sun as Letterman and company have done a fine job of translating the franchise appeals to as wide an audience as possible. That said, if cute little monsters tagging alongside dull human characters doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, this won’t likely do much of anything for you. Me? I could take it or leave it.
CONCLUSION: ‘Detective Pikachu’ hums off its early noir setting and an amusing Ryan Reynolds riff track, which almost make up for the later portion’s blasé blockbusting. Diehard Pokéfans and wide-eyed kiddos will likely love it while older audiences and the uninitiated may find themselves questioning the draw.
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