Pokémon Detective Pikachu wears multiple hats over the course of its 104-minute runtime. Sometimes the film is a wholesome, Spielbergian coming-of-age adventure. At other points, it’s a buddy comedy teeming with self-referential, mic drop-y in-jokes, many of which are bound to fly straight over the heads of its target demographic. Or maybe you want your Pokémon movie to be science fiction with vague sociopolitical subtext? Hey, it can do that, too!
Detective Pikachu director Rob Letterman—a careerist childrens’ filmmaker with stinkers like Shark Tale and Gulliver’s Travels to his name—mines all of these tried-and-true tropes, and a few more, to varying degrees of success. But there’s simply not enough time for the film to follow any of those threads to their conclusions. As hard as it tries, the Marvel Cinematic Universe this is not—more than anything, Detective Pikachu feels like Turner & Hooch on a combination of mescaline and speed.
The film’s opening centers around Tim (Justice Smith), a former Pokémon trainer with a backstory so tragically maudlin it makes Peter Parker look like a Powerball winner. Tim’s ordinary, Pokémon-less life is upturned when some bad news lures him to Ryme City, one of the only regions in the film’s world where Pokémon and human beings freely coexist. It’s here that Tim meets Detective Pikachu—an adorable yellow mouse with a deerstalker cap, the voice of Ryan Reynolds, and an endless stream of quotables that can only be understood by Tim.
What would a world inhabited by humans and Pokémon actually look like? Detective Pikachu’s depiction of that world is pretty damn convincing, and much of that can be attributed to the movie’s unique, bizarre aesthetic.
In this opening half hour, Detective Pikachu hits so many high notes. For millennials my age who were fully conscious of the Pokémon phenomenon, the movie answers an age-old question: What would a world inhabited by humans and Pokémon actually look like? Detective Pikachu’s depiction of that world is pretty damn convincing, and much of that can be attributed to the movie’s unique, bizarre aesthetic. The more “epic” Pokémon—like the fire-lizard Charizard and the, uh, water-cannon-turtle Blastoise—are more kaiju than cuddly, and even a typically innocuous puffball like Jigglypuff looks like a photorealistic Face Swap abomination. Meanwhile, Tim and Pikachu’s dynamic is exactly what you’d want from a human-Pokémon team-up, leading to an outrageous good cop/bad cop routine that feels far too violent for the film’s PG rating.
But then the stakes become too high—with the snap of a finger, Tim and Pikachu go from solving innocent mysteries to saving the entire world. Too many characters are introduced who detract from the protagonists’ magnetism, and there are a slew of incoherent plot twists, few of which resolve satisfyingly. (Which I realize might be too much to ask from a Pokémon adaptation.) Detective Pikachu achieves “best video game movie ever” status almost automatically, merely by virtue of not massively fucking with the overall tone of the franchise or giving its protagonist a gun—but that also seems to be the extent of its aspirations. At most, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is akin to an Olympic skater gracefully recovering from a misstep; it’s an extremely impressive mess.