Review: No Pokémon? No Problem. Detective Pikachu is Still Fun for the Unfamiliar

I am fully aware and am happy to acknowledge that I am the absolute wrong audience for a movie set in a world where Pokémon exist, work and, for all I know, breed with human beings. That being said, the makers of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu have done something wise, which is to create a film version of the media/toy franchise that is mostly accessible even to those of us who have zero connection to the phenomenon that is Pokémon. I wish there had maybe been a little bit more explanation as to what Pokémon are and the history of how they so readily accepted into the human world, but that’s just me wanting a kids movie to exist in a logical, fully formed world.

Pokemon Detective Pikachu

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Years after a crack detective named Harry Goodman is supposedly killed after driving away from a mysterious lab, his now-21-year-old son Tim (Justice Smith, from Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom and Netflix’s The Getdown) is living life as an insurance salesman until his curiosity gets the better of him and he wants to look into the circumstances of his dad’s death. So he heads to the metropolis known as Ryme City—a true hub of human/Pokémon co-existence—where he is sprayed in the face with a mysterious gas and maybe he bumps his head too, and suddenly he’s able to hear the voice of Pikachu very clearly (in the voice of Ryan Reynolds no less), which is unusual because it doesn’t appear any member of the Pokémon species speaks English.

Pikachu has a natural knack for detective work and has almost no memory of the last few years of his life, so the two decide to join forces and solve the mystery of Goodman’s premature demise, which brings them into the sphere of good and bad humans and Pokémon, and they begin to uncover the plot of an unknown mad genius who has a master plan that severely impacts both species.

Director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps, Monsters vs. Aliens, Gulliver’s Travels) has an imperfect gift for making stories aimed at younger audiences still palpable to the older crowd. One way he does this is with impressive world building. The colorful visuals of Ryme City are spectacular—imagine the world of Blade Runner with the lights turned on. The interaction between the humans and tactile Pokémon isn’t bad either.

But perhaps the most interesting way the filmmaker engages older audience members is by casting unexpected actors in key supporting roles. In addition to Reynolds (basically doing a clean version of his wisecracking Deadpool personality), we get to see known scene-stealers Bill Highy, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Karan Soni, Suki Waterhouse, singer Rita Ora, and Kathryn Newton, all of whom keep things rooted in the real world and keep things from getting too cartoonish. It’s not a foolproof plan, but I was never bored, if for no other reason than I was curious what familiar face the film was going to throw my way next.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu isn’t breaking any ground as a live-action/animation hybrid, but it’s not a complete dud either. Smith’s performance is mostly reactive, and he doesn’t really get a chance to shine as an actor the way he has in other recent works, but he’s got a quality that makes you care about him figuring out what happened to his father. And perhaps I’m wrong in characterizing the film as a kid’s adventure, since there were just as many adults in my screening, giddy with anticipation as there were children. If Pokémon is your bag, you likely know whether this film is for you, but if it’s not and you find yourself getting dragged to it, you could do worse. Hell, you could do worse with this week’s releases.

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