Detective Pikachu was made with Pokémon fans and wannabe trainers in mind. Whether you’ve been trying to catch ’em all (of which there are well over 800 at this point) for more than 20 years or have only just caught onto the craze recently, this live-action movie offers something new and exciting for fans of all ages. If you ever wanted to see Growlithes and Snubbulls partner up with their human counterparts in law enforcement, or see a Squirtle Squad team up to put out a fire, or spy an Octillery serving up Tangela Noodles in a street cafe, then Detective Pikachu is for you. And if all you want is 104 minutes of a hyper-cute Pikachu drinking copious amounts of coffee and making wisecracks while trying to solve a crime, this movie is for you, too.
But for everyone else, you might want to pass. Detective Pikachu is all about the Pokémon, the title star and his fellow catchable critters alike. Every scene has Pokémon in it, with some obvious ones front and center and other more obscure ones tucked away in the background or hiding in the shadows, but they’re there for fans to find and be delighted for discovering them. And they go by quickly! Prepare yourselves for multiple viewings if you, indeed, want to catch them all. Unfortunately, the half-baked mystery story relies heavily on tropes, two-dimensional characters (no pun intended), and too familiar twists and turns, few of which make much sense in reality even though they’re forced to fit the Poké-fied narrative. The long and short of it is this: See Detective Pikachu for the Pokémon, not the plot.
There’s a lot of fun to have with Detective Pikachu if you’re in the right mindset. Ryan Reynolds brings charm, quick wit, and kinetic energy to the title character. The special effects teams, of which they are legion, maximized cuteness for Pikachu; he’s literally never not cute in any frame of this movie, and that will get some people through by itself. That cuteness factor extends to other questionable live-action models of Pokémon, namely Psyduck, Snorlax, Aipom, and even Mr. Mime. Some of the bigger, rougher, and tougher Pokémon–like Machamp, Charizard, Blastoise, and Torterra–trade that cuteness for more of an imposing nature, but they’re still a blast to watch in action (sometimes literally). And rather than just be a bunch of supporting players in the story, a few signature Pokémon factor into the mystery in a significant way, some of which you’ll never see coming. That deserves a tip of the hat to the writers for including the beloved characters in a meaningful way.
The Cobalion’s share of the heavy lifting, however, goes to human characters Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) and Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a pair of young adults who cross each other’s paths while trying to solve the same mystery in Ryme City. Smith and Newton have to act out some intense action sequences and extended dialogue scenes with Pokémon, who obviously aren’t on screen with them in reality, no matter how real they might look throughout. The duo does a solid job of selling the fantasy and the idea that Ryme City is a place where everyone has a Pokémon pal.
Except not everyone does. Tim, an insurance agent, was once as pro-Pokémon as you could get, but his detective father’s decision to spend more time with the cute critters than his own son put a stop to this. That’s why the movie starts out with Tim’s pal Jack (Karan Soni) trying to pair him up with a particularly lonely and isolated Pokémon; I won’t spoil this scene because it’s a fun start to the story, but it sets up Tim’s reluctance to get close to Pokémon. Moments later, Tim gets word that his father, Detective Harry Goodman, has gone missing and is presumed dead, thus delivering a one-two punch to our protagonist.
Unfortunately, from there on out, the mystery machine struggles to pair Pokémon with a film noir detective story. The closest thing I can compare it to is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, an ambitious 1988 film that saw a live-action hard-nosed detective stepping into Toon Town to solve a crime with an animated cartoon rabbit. The reason why that movie succeeded where Detective Pikachu does not is because Eddie Valiant and Roger’s relationship is rocky for a long, long time before they actually come to care about each other, solve the mystery, and save the day. Tim and Pikachu get off to a rough start, just as Tim’s relationship with ambitious junior reporter/blogger Lucy is awkward at the beginning, but they all become friends way too fast. Much of the comedic tension drains away, leaving viewers to be distracted by looking for Pokémon while waiting for the next step in the mystery-solving.
Even for a movie that’s based on a video game/cartoon, the plot is pretty ridiculous, increasingly so as we get into the third act. That’s half the fun, but it’s also straight-up nonsense. Without giving away the twists and turns themselves, it suffices to say that Tim, Lucy, and Pikachu’s quest to solve Harry’s disappearance/death involves shady underground fighting rings, a powerful corporation that employs some who want to protect Pokémon as well as those who want to exploit them, and some WTF reveals that will either have you gasping in surprise or laughing at how ludicrous it all is. (And since the trailers revealed the presence of the powerful psychic Pokémon Mewtwo, it’s not a spoiler to say he’s involved, but not in ways you might expect.)
Detective Pikachu hits you with a rapid series of “Wait, what?” moments in the last 15 minutes or so, as if to make sure that, even if you weren’t paying attention throughout the rest of the movie, you’ll at least get some resolution. Is it an ending that everyone will be happy with? Absolutely not. Will most audience members be happy enough seeing super-cute live-action Pokémon frolic about that they won’t really care about the bonkers ending? Probably so.
I reiterate: See Detective Pikachu for the Pokémon, not the plot.