Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the Pokémon franchise’ first hoppip from animated to live action filmmaking. After receiving news of his father’s death, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) journeys to Ryme City, where he meets the titular ‘Detective Pikachu’ – his father’s Pokémon partner, who can somehow talk to Tim with the voice of Ryan Reynolds. What follows is a delightfully charming buddy-cop adventure film, as the unlikely pair solve the mystery of the dad’s disappearance.
The film’s key selling point, and its greatest strength, is the Pokémon. The transition from cartoon to ‘realistic’ design is a tricky path to tread, but Detective Pikachu avoids several pitfalls. For a start, the design of each creature retains a cartoonishness that skirts the uncanny valley, whilst still managing to incorporate the level of detail that makes them fit a world populated by humans. Furthermore, each pocket monster is allowed to be, well, monstrous: Lickitung, is delightfully slimy, with huge saliva-coated tongue, whilst Ludicolo keeps its goofy duck bill and leaf sombrero.
There’s a good range of Pokémon too, from the popular (Pikachu, Bulbasaur, Charizard), to the unknown (Audino, Flabébé, Morelull), helping to present this as a believable world. Indeed, for the most part there is an efficiency and elegance to the world building; our opening scene is a familiar farm setting, yet with pens of Bouffalant rather than cattle. There is great attention to detail and consistent logic that sells Ryme city as a tangible location, preventing the Pokémon from feeling like gimmicks or cheap marketing ploys.
In this regard, Detective Pikachu treats its audience with the utmost respect. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the dialogue. The film is quite squarely targeted at children, a point made clear by some extremely clanky and heavy-handed dialogue. Though the central mystery is relatively interesting and pacey, characters have a ghastly habit of recapping the events in painful detail. This issue is only exacerbated by predictable twists; it isn’t difficult to solve the mystery before the characters do.
As for the characters themselves, Tim is a perfectly serviceable protagonist, with Justice Smith’s performance bringing life to what would otherwise be a relatively wishiwashi hero. Lucy Stevens’ wannabe-journalist Kathryn Newton is similarly one-note, yet likeable, as she brings a determined energy that compliments Tim’s initial reluctance. Neither actors are particularly suited to action though, and this is one aspect in which I found the film lacking. Be it through performance, music, writing or a combination thereof, none of the action beats quite came together, which is a shame considering that battling is one of the Pokémon franchise’s main components.
Overall though, it’s difficult to dislike Detective Pikachu. I’d be hard-pressed to call any of its components ‘bad’ per se; at worst it’s a perfectly adequate adventure film. But then a herd of Bulbasaur waddle through a river, and all potential grievances magically vanish.