MOVIE REVIEW: Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

I was never a Pokémon master. I didn’t play the video games (except for about a day’s worth of Pokémon Go hunting), and I was more interested in the Kids’ WB Yu-Gi-Oh! offerings than the adventures of Ash, Misty, and Brock. I did collect the cards with my brother; I’m pretty sure I still have a shiny original Vaporeon in a binder in my childhood bedroom. So while I’m definitely not the precise target demographic for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, I’m familiar enough with the lore and the world-building to understand the strange beauty of a Pikachu with the voice of Deadpool, and to be entranced by a world where Pokémon look and feel like real better-than-pets you could live with. (Even if I was initially put off by the idea of such a fluffy-furred Pikachu.)
Indeed, in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, Pokémon are treated with the significance of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials daemons, as opposed to being even the most beloved mere pet. Unlike daemons, Pokémon, as it’s both explicitly explained and shown, can’t understand human speech, but can read and respond to their human partner’s emotions. Unlike Ash Ketchum’s goal to “catch ’em all” in the original anime, most of the characters we meet have a single Pokémon partner who accompanies them at all times—again, like a daemon. As a result, everyone seems to look askance at melancholy, introverted Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who, at the age of 21, is still without a Pokémon partner. We meet Tim and his friend Jack (Karan Soni) as they attempt to capture him a Cubone (an appropriately lonely Pokémon, as Tim bitterly notes) as a Pokémon partner and fail miserably. Soon after, Tim gets a call that his long-estranged father has died in a car crash, sending him from his small town and ordinary life as an insurance salesman to the glittering tech-utopia of Ryme City—the city where Pokémon and humans live as equal partners, as opposed to the (admittedly violent) trainer/battle model of the animated series.

The first half or so of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu plays like a fun detective noir, while the back half is a more typical action-adventure story. Harry Goodman, Tim’s father, was a world-class detective in Ryme City, and his death came about under apparently mysterious circumstances. In short order, Tim encounters Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a wannabe reporter with an anxious Psyduck in tow and the fast-talking verve of a 1930s Girl Friday. He discovers a strange purple gas in Harry’s apartment that seems to turn otherwise affable Pokémon uncontrollably violent, and meets Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), Harry’s former Pokémon partner who somehow survived the car crash but lost his memories. Tim is dragged into solving the mystery of what actually happened to Harry Goodman, confronting his own issues of abandonment, low self-confidence, and dashed dreams along the way. What happened to Harry Goodman? Why can Tim and Pikachu communicate? Where did the purple gas come from? And what does the eccentric billionaire founder of Ryme City, Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), have to do with everything? From there it’s a hop, skip, and a jump into an underground Pokémon battle ring fueled by the purple gas, an investigation into a suspicious Pokémon research facility, and a fairly hilarious interrogation of a Mister Mime (not in that order).

There’s a lot of necessary exposition in this movie as the story unfolds, and it’s to Detective Pikachu’s credit that it never feels like the plot stops to dump information on the viewer. We learn about Ryme City as Tim learns about it, hearing its rules and customs from an introductory PSA on Tim’s train ride and seeing its unfamiliarity through his eyes. The various and conflicting stories of what exactly happened to Harry Goodman aren’t just recounted through dialogue, but shown through kinetic, in-universe holographic recreations that go beyond the usual video footage on a floating screen. Tim’s painful memories and resentment of his father, who left him with his grandmother after the death of his mother, are revealed through both neatly-dropped bits of conversation and Justice Smith’s compelling acting. There’s no one moment where Tim explains to Detective Pikachu that he used to dream of being a Pokémon trainer and that’s why he reflexively avoids everything related to Pokémon. It’s shown through the set design of Tim’s never-used bedroom in Harry’s apartment, through Tim’s easy facility with Pikachu’s attack abilities, and—again, most amusingly—Tim’s intuitive, out-of-the-box interrogation of the Mister Mime that yields more results than Detective Pikachu’s attempts.

It’s just these little touches of maximum effort (oops, wrong Ryan Reynolds movie!) that make Detective Pikachu as strong as it is—that, and, of course, Ryan Reynolds’ energetic, generous voice acting. A talking Pikachu with the voice of Deadpool should not be as absolutely adorable as it is, and yet here we are. The cast is uniformly game; aside from Smith and Reynolds, Kathryn Newton positively crackles with energy as Lucy, and has believable chemistry with Smith. The Pokémon are, for the most part, brought to life in realistic (or at least, conceivable) ways, and the world of Ryme City is sketched in enough particulars (a Machamp directing traffic, a Squirtle team helping firefighters) that you don’t think to question its logic too much. You just want to live in Ryme City and have a Pokémon partner of your own—exactly all that Pokémon: Detective Pikachu really needed to do to succeed.