When Ryan Reynolds first burst into the nerd consciousness in the Blade movies with his chiseled anatomical parts, no one would have guessed that he’d become the Jerry Seinfeld of superheroes. Likewise, when those first Detective Pikachu trailers and photos were released last year, people were quickly trying to crawl their way out of this particular uncanny valley.
Both first impressions were equally wrong. Reynolds has, of course, become a (Canadian) national treasure with his witty, subversive take on Deadpool, a connection so strong that it’s spilled over into the award-winning advertising campaigns for the films that he personally helps design.
And Detective Pikachu is actually…a very sweet, fun movie with many genuine laughs and impressive world-building. Granted, the central mystery is one that anyone over the age of 11 could solve in less than 11 minutes, but it’s Reynolds as the voice of the title character who keeps things rocketing along. It’s a PG version of his quippy Deadpool, with an added layer of squee for just how cute this CGI Pikachu is.
The story is simple stuff, the novelty of human/pokémon interaction coupled with a very fluffy take on noir that’s quickly abandoned. For a few moments I thought this might be the 21st century version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but that film is as dark as a Fabian Wagner fight scene compared to this.
But few will begrudge this sunny excursion into how human and animal identities intersect, based on the video game of the same name. The films opens, like all movies do, with an ominous escape from a lab – in this case it’s Mewtwo, the rarest and most powerful Pokémon of all who is busting out.
From there we meet Justice Smith as Tim Goodman (get it?), a 21-year-old insurance inspector whose friend is taking him Pokémon hunting, with the ulterior motive of finding a Poképal for the isolated Tim. That the friend thinks that a lonely, wailing Cubone would be good company for someone with socializing issues is just the first joke that veteran Pokémon trainers will spy.
Tim’s humdrum life is soon upended by the tragic news that his father, Harry Goodman, a detective on the Ryme City police force, has been killed in a car crash. In Ryme City – the setting for the video game Detective Pikachu as well – humans and Pokémon live together in a bustling metropolis that’s part Blade Runner and part Akihabara. This utopia is the brainchild of ultra-zillionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), who owes his surviving a rare disease to the discovery of the healing powers of Pokémon. Almost everyone has their own Pokémon in Ryme City – hipsters proudly walking their growlithes, squirtles helping put out fires and so on.
While going through his late father’s apartment, Tim discovers several things: a vial filled with a purple gas that makes normally benign Pokémon turn into fierce little monsters. He also discovers Pikachu, his father’s Pokémon. Even more incredibly he discovers that this Pikachu can talk and they can understand each other. Pikachu, in an adorable sleuth-shaped cap, insists that the purple gas and Harry’s death are related: it’s a big case and he and Tim need to team up together. And most incredibly: Harry might still be alive.
Tim makes feeble attemps to resist Piakchu’s charms but this critter won’t take no for an answer. They’re soon joined by Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspiring Lois Lane who works as an intern at CNM, the news network also owned by Clifford. Lucy’s daemon is a Psyduck, a highstrung Pokémon that’s in constant danger of exploding due to stress, a situation that the ensuing perils do little to calm. Lucy is also trying to crack the case, and soon the trio are off on an adventure that involves Charizard fighting pits, Clifford and his son, Roger (Chris Geere), trading off as to which rich white man is the real villain, a trip back to the lab, and a finale that involves a parade filled with giant Pokémon balloons.
It’s a romp that moves along swiftly thanks to Reynolds’ constant banter and the beautifully realized setting. Detective Pikachu is not as foul and manic as Deadpool but otherwise they share many of the same humorous traits, from the call back to the call out – and perhaps a little gas here and there. It’s obvious that Reynolds relishes diving into a humorous part like this, and Pikachu’s fundamentally hopeful nature is never lost.
Ryme City comes alive as a bustling metropolis, with quirky Pokémon and soaring neon skylines sharing the screen. Ken Sugimori’s brilliant designs for the Generation One Pokémon have proven amazingly durable, and Pikachu himself makes a fine transition to CGI, with his furrowed furry brow, fuzzy tummy and adorable little paws just begging to be rubbed.
While the story is told from a kid’s-level view (Lucy is an intern who has the run of the studio, up to the chairman’s office), whoever brought Reynolds on board made this a movie that adults can enjoy right alongside the kids.
Detective Pikachu is definitely a boys adventure, though. Lucy is a bit of a Smurfette as the only woman with a sizable role, although we glimpse Suki Waterhouse and singer Rita Ora has a brief, weird cameo. Mostly, this is a movie about fathers and sons, or as Pikachu puts it “You can’t have daddy issues without a daddy.” While the hodge podge of writers – director Dan Letterman, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Derek Connolly, and Nicole Perlman – keeps the story brisk, one might detect a bit of Perlman’s hand in the parental yearnings on display (she’s got a story credit, although to be fair the movie plot is also the setup of the video game.)
The cast is sure and affable. Smith and Newton are, respectively, baffled and ambitious, with easy charm to spare. Ken Watanabe makes a few appearances as Harry’s cop collague to add a little more adult supervision. Director Letterman hits all the story marks and you quickly forget about all the CGI and immerse yourself in this Gameboy of a world.
In fact, Detective Pikachu might just be the best movie ever made based on a video game – a crown that has very little real competition, admittedly. It’s sweet, funny, energetic and throws a bit of wonder in here and there (bad people have been experimenting on Pokémon and the results lead to some earth shaking reveals.) If you have some Pokémon trainers in your household – or even want to see your own youthful menageries brought to the screen – Detective Pikachu will be a delight.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.