This review contains minor spoilers.
With Avengers: Endgame still destroying box office records, any film coming out so soon after was bound to run into trouble. That said, out of all the current releases post-Endgame, the one that looked most likely to hold its own was Pokémon Detective Pikachu. If early box office predictions are anything to go by, it looks like this family caper will do reasonably well this weekend, with critics hailing it the best video-game adaption yet. While a fun time, Detective Pikachu certainly doesn’t buck this trend, and is a somewhat disappointing time.
The saving grace of Detective Pikachu, as evident in all the promotion, is Ryan Reynolds’ performance as the titular Pokémon. Reynolds injects the snarky delivery he perfected in Deadpool to terrific effect, bringing life to what is an otherwise drab script with some fantastic puns. He plays very well off the supporting cast, namely the protagonist Tim (Justice Smith), elevating their performances through the sheer charisma he brings to a character that has never been so funny and layered. The film’s tone struggles to find its feet, but Reynolds – who’s clearly improvising a lot of his gags – brings some well-needed adult humour at points to keep all audiences engaged when the plot gets a little silly and convoluted.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for the supporting cast. Justice Smith’s Tim had the potential to be an interesting character, with the screenplay highlighting what could’ve been some genuinely impressive plot threads to explore, such as how he dealt with the death of his mother and how this subsequently led to his relationship with his father souring, but these elements are barely touched upon in favour of a very by-the-numbers plot. Smith’s performance itself isn’t fantastic: his delivery at times is very weak, and it’s incredibly hard to care about the protagonist when the performance is so shallow. There are moments of emotion that could’ve hit the mark in a better-written script, but they don’t land here. Bill Nighy does the best he can with his role, the mysterious businessman Howard Clifford, but again his character is underwritten and the trajectory of his arc constantly switches, making it not only hard to invest in him but plain just hard to care. Lastly, Kathryn Newton does her best as the journalist intern Lucy, but the lines she’s given are so lazy and expository, and her relationship with Tim so weak, that her character hardly seems to matter.
That said, the film succeeds most when it’s immersed in the world of Pokémon – which is a surprisingly short amount of time. The worldbuilding of Ryme City is well-done: its visually stunning, and there’s a plethora of well-loved Pokémon from all generations sprinkled within the landscape to look out for: arguably the film’s most rewarding element, and the only part that feels genuinely made-for-fans. The funniest gags come when the Pokémon – who are mostly well-rendered with the CGI – take the centre stage, with a truly hilarious scene with Mr. Mime sticking in the mind. Despite this, the film’s lighting-quick pacing means not enough time is spent in Ryme City, with much of the action taking place in barren landscapes that lack the visual density that makes the film’s early stages gripping.
And that’s the main issue here: the plot is muddled, dull and doesn’t capitalise upon the franchise it’s set in. Having Mewtwo as the main antagonist feels like a welcome callback to the original Pokémon movie from 1998, but for the most part Mewtwo’s characterisation is inconsistent and unrewarding when his arc reaches its conclusion. The script finds interesting elements – such as Reynolds’ spectacular performance and Tim’s family issues – but shuns them in favour of unsatisfying plot twists, a weak villain and mystery that constantly loses steam throughout the film.
The biggest shame with Detective Pikachu is how good it clearly could’ve been: Reynolds is on top form, and the film desperately misses him when his Pikachu isn’t in a scene, but aside from his performance and some good callbacks to Pokémon lore, this is nothing but a weakly-written family mystery with bland characters and an unsatisfying plot. It really feels like a missed opportunity to bring Pokémon to the big-screen for new fans and old, and if this film is remembered for anything, it’ll be what Reynolds brings to the Pikachu role – not the messy plot. Seeing Pokémon in Hollywood is such an exciting idea, but next time the execution needs to be far better.