As anyone who’s seen the trailers can attest, the central gag of Pokémon Detective Pikachu — if we may call it a gag — is that it’s a Pokémon movie with a neo-noir veneer: The skies are dark, the streets wet, the lights neon, and the cuddly, four-legged little Pikachu speaks not in adorable, nonsensical squeaks but in the snark-boiled voice of Ryan Reynolds, an actor who couldn’t sound sincere if his life depended on it. It’s a reasonably fun conceit, and to the film’s credit, the idea doesn’t get nearly as tedious as it might have. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much all Detective Pikachu’s got going for it. Pokémon obsessives will want to check it out, but the movie is mostly an uninspired slog, not committed enough to work as a demented genre picture, and not funny enough to work as a goofy, lighthearted comedy. You chuckle, you go “aww” a couple of times, and that’s it.
How does a Pokémon even get Ryan Reynolds’s voice? Well, it has something to do with a car accident in which Harry Goodman, a detective working for the Ryme City Police Department, was killed. (Ryme City, of course, is the one metropolis where humans and Pokémon can coexist in harmony.) His partner, Pikachu, survived the accident but has been struck with amnesia. Harry’s son, Tim (Justice Smith), who has supposedly outgrown his childhood Pokémon obsession, returns to Ryme City to try to find out what happened to his dad. There, Tim discovers that he can talk to Pikachu and understand him, and together with an intrepid TV news intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), the three find themselves in the middle of a vast, mysterious conspiracy involving a dangerous new compound, attempts to genetically engineer a powerful new Pokémon, and a rivalry between industrialist Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) and his slick son (Chris Geere).
It’s a hodgepodge of elements we’ve seen in countless other places — take the rough outline of the Detective Pikachu video game, add a few elements from various Spider-Man flicks, and give it a couple of whirls — but the movie is more interested in mood and banter than it is in anything resembling a compelling narrative shape. Alas, the script hasn’t exactly been outfitted with fast-paced witticisms, and as the human half of the central duo, Smith’s delivery is largely stiff. (That’s surprising, because he’s already proven his chops with winning appearances in The Get Down and the last Jurassic World sequel. Was he performing opposite a real actor on the Detective Pikachu set, or some tennis balls taped to a stick?) What almost saves it all is Reynolds’s characteristically above-it-all cadence — that playfully sneering quality to his diction that makes him ideal for playing inept con men, entitled frat boys, and self-satirizing comic-book mercenaries. It’s not so much that there’s any particular art to his delivery, but his voice does sound funny coming out of a cuddly little magic creature beloved by young children.
The visual milieu has been designed to play up a similar contrast: The nocturnal world of Detective Pikachu feels more like something out of Blade Runner or The Dark Knight than it does a kids’ movie, and that’s kind of cute, too — maybe even a little pointed, in the way it mocks the “darker, grittier” approach to supposedly family-friendly entertainment undertaken by certain studios (including Warner Bros., the ones releasing Detective Pikachu). But really, it’s nothing that Who Framed Roger Rabbit didn’t already try more successfully 30 years ago.
Still, the Pokémon themselves are fun to watch. The film doesn’t try to turn them into slick, smooth-moving CGI creatures, but rather lets them look like the overgrown walking and talking toys that they are. To be fair, this could have become somewhat disturbing, and maybe it should have. There’s a ready-made audience of adults prepared to turn this into a stoner classic, sight unseen. The movie doesn’t necessarily need to pander to these folks, but I do wish it embraced more than just its own agreeable inanity. Like all good corporate cop-outs, Detective Pikachu pulls back before things get too interesting or memorable.