Hey children, do you like adorable creatures capable of incredibly finite speech? Would you like to carry them with you and love them for always? Also, real quick, how do you feel about them being locked in a tiny cage and forced to maul one another?
Pokémon’s core conceit has always been somewhere between puzzling and offensive, even if the actual content has always been somewhere between benign and inspired. Detective Pikachu, the first live-action offering associated with the omnipresent property, could give two Squirtles of Pidgey about explaining any Poké-logistics in any way. Presumably, the film doesn’t want to waste any time establishing rules for a unique universe where humans live alongside powerful creatures that they also sometimes abduct. This is so that Detective Pikachu can get to what all families really came to see: long-winded exposition!
Because the name Billy Niceguy would be silly, the hero here is Tim Goodman (Justice Smith). Unlike everyone else, Tim doesn’t own a Pokémon pet/partner/pocket assassin, for reasons that never really make sense. When he discovers that his estranged detective father has been killed in the line of duty, protecting a city where humans and Pokémon live in quasi-equality, he is sucked into a mystery that involves genetic manipulation and, most importantly, Bill Nighy.
Everything changes when Tim runs into his father’s partner, a hat-wearing Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds). Whereas most humans can only hear Pokémon repeating their own species title over and over again, a profoundly creepy trait often misconstrued as cute, Tim can understand Pikachu in perfect English. The unlikely duo join forces to untangle a web of laughably insane plot threads that prevent the film from actually having much fun.
Here’s the thing: director Rob Letterman and the 5,000 credited writers have created a vibrant, inventive world. Neo-Tokyo collides with National Geographic in an environment that somehow harmonizes sterile future tech with cuddly living creatures. Smith is a perfectly pleasant everyman, and Reynolds’s G-rated Deadpool-lite is as restrained as judicious editing and his contract rider will allow.
The problem is that virtually every scene is chockablock full of yawntastic explanations. These aren’t interesting discussions, like about how the Pokémon actually feel about fuzzy fight clubs, but MacGuffin nonsense, like how Poké-scientists manufacture a certain pheromone. Detective Pikachu refuses to make a tonal choice. It tightrope walks an uncanny valley, with frolicking family entertainment on one side and insightfully dark observation on the other. That sounds way cooler than it is…
Look, Detective Pikachu is fine. It’s frustratingly far more forgettable than the trailers suggested while still offering a captivating visual landscape. Technically, this may be the best straight-up video game adaptation ever made. But that’s a lot like being called “the most listenable Pitbull song.” That said, Detective Pikachu’s world is far more worthy of further exploration than Mr. Worldwide. Ending a review about a thinly veiled dogfighting metaphor with a Pitbull reference feels good. Feels real good.
Grade = B-