Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Considering the global phenomenon that is the Pokemon brand, one has to wonder why it took so long for Hollywood to coin a live action motion picture. We’ve had numerous television specials and animated films, but never has the vast scope and landscape of the popular card trading game crossed over into the real world. In the case of “Pokemon: Detective Pikachu” - which is based on the noir videogame of the same title - these two worlds are finally joined together, and if not for Ryan Reynolds PG-rated “Deadpool” style antics as the voice of the furry lead character, Rob Letterman’s adaptation would’ve never taken off.
This is the first dive into live action cinema for this franchise, and the results are decidedly mixed. The CGI palette of walking-talking cuddly Pokemon creatures look so plush and real, it’s like you can almost reach out and grab them, but the final 45 minutes of “Detective Pikachu” somehow tapers off into a smash and grab buffet of over complicated arches and villains that seem to be thrown on the screen in hopes that something sticks.
That said, the film gets off on a strong note where we meet former Pokemon enthusiast and wannabe trainer Tim (“Paper Towns” breakout Justice Smith) who now works in insurance and has lost much of his passion for seeking and catching the creatures. Since the death of his mother, and the absences of his father weighs on him, Tim struggles to find true purpose in his daily activities. Even a friend tries to spark joy by tricking him to catch a wild Cubone, and the results are fairly comical.
In these earlier moments of the film, Letterman does a solid job laying the foundation for the Pokemon world, quickly getting audiences caught up on all the lore associated with the franchise (which, for someone who doesn’t call themselves an enthusiast, is very welcome). Sadly, most of the gameplay elements which made the franchise so memorable (i.e the open world exploration and battle royale’s) get tossed aside in favor of a so-so daddy issue narrative we’ve seen played out far too many times in the pathos of PG rated movies.
Like the titular character’s main power, the film is given a spark of energy once Ryan Reynolds daffy and coffee obsessed Pikachu hops on the scene in an effort to help Tim solve the disappearance, and presumed homicide, of his father. These scenes taking place in the iconic location of Ryme City, a utopia where Pokemon and people live in complete harmony (Pokemon battles are outlawed and must happen in underground clubs). Which, for Letterman and his team of screenwriters, is an easy way to acclimate a general audience to the world these creatures inhabit.
Pikachu and Tim have pretty good chemistry which gives the film it’s edge (specifically with Reynolds’s obvious creative freedom, punctuated with his bits of dialogue which offers up several innuendos that younger Pokemon trainers won’t understand - but will leave the adults wincing). The pair eventually cross paths with a blogger Lucy (Kathryn Newton - “Ben is Back”) whose name mine as well be Nancy Drew. Of course, she’s got some leads on a bombshell story that could bring an entire dynasty to its knees and it may or may not involve the experimentation of Pokemon genetics and one namesake character whose inclusion is a head scratcher.
And that’s where “Detective Pikachu” starts to loose its mojo. This is a film that would’ve worked better had it stayed focused on the open world it was trying to create, instead of jamming several plot discrepancies down our throat (the second leg of this film has more subplots than actual Pokemon characters). And while the CGI design on most of these furry creatures are spot on and feel authentic to the regime of the brand, the CG figures that populate the background can feel repetitive. A quick Google search will tell you there are 809 Pokemon currently in the catalog, and let’s just say “Detective Pikachu” doesn’t quite succeed at the task of making audiences feel those numbers.
It goes without saying, but the film is at its best when it stays honed in on the actual mechanics of the game (like an underground battle between some of the more popular characters in the canon). But thanks in large part to Reynolds spunk and charismatic energy, the film manages to salvage what it can of a plot that fails to catch on.