For decades, the video game movie has been full of disappointments, as studios have a hard time translating even the most popular video game stories into a different medium. No matter the genre, video game films have had a hard time matching the tone and stories in a way that reminds gamers what they loved about those games in the first place. Wildly absent for twenty-six years, since the massive failure of Super Mario Bros., has been maybe the most beloved video game company of them all: Nintendo.
In only the second attempt to make a live-action adaptation of a Nintendo game, Pokémon Detective Pikachu nails quite a bit of what people have loved about Pokémon for years. Yet in a game that mostly revolves around capturing hundreds of creatures, story isn’t the biggest draw in the Pokémon franchise, and that shows in Detective Pikachu. While world construction, character animation and a general understanding of what makes this franchise exciting to fans is present in Detective Pikachu, it’s the lackluster and confused story that keeps the latest video game adaptation from bucking the trend of unfortunate video game movies.
Detective Pikachu takes place in a world where Pokémon (which means “pocket monsters”) exist and Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) used to love these magical creatures. But now in his twenties, Tim has outgrown these monsters, and his dream to one day become a Pokémon trainer. When Tim receives a message that his father has died, he returns to his home of Ryme City – a place where humans and Pokémon coexist. While in his father’s apartment, he meets his father’s Pokémon, a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who believes that Tim’s father is still alive. Pikachu has amnesia and can’t remember much about his past, but with the help of Tim, the two try to find out the truth about Tim’s father and the mysterious incident that supposedly led to his death.
Early on, Detective Pikachu makes it clear its creatures are far more compelling than its human characters. Director Rob Letterman has done an excellent job bringing Pokémon into real world settings, with moments like a Snorlax falling asleep in the middle of a busy traffic intersection, and Squirtles helping firemen. It’s hard not to think of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, another film that took known animated properties and integrated them into a realistic world, centered around a cast to solve.
Detective Pikachu similarly tries to bring a noir style to the world of Pokémon, but with four different writers, the mystery and story feel jumbled and awkward. Motivations aren’t exactly clear – especially when it comes to the film’s villain – and character development never feels earned. The noir mystery at the center is wildly undercooked, and the humor is lacking, even for seasoned Pokémon fans.
Instead of having narration like many noir films, Detective Pikachu fittingly has its title character. Reynolds here is basically doing Deadpool for kids, with tame wisecracks, but he’s mostly just regurgitating what is happening in the plot back to the audience. Reynolds’ voice performance does add life to Detective Pikachu, but it’s not as vibrant of a performance as one would expect. It is when Detective Pikachu focuses on the uniqueness of these characters that the film is at its most fun. Pikachu is naturally adorable, and his interactions with Psyduck are great, as is an interrogation scene with a Mr. Mime. On the other hand, Detective Pikachu does often rely on characters as deus ex machinas that will really only make sense to existing fans.
Detective Pikachu knows its audience, and knows they’ll want to see these characters in a realistic setting. in that regard, Detective Pikachu does a commendable job bringing this world to life. But without a coherent story that benefits these characters, and humans that are worth spending time with, Detective Pikachu ends up being more of a weird proof-of-concept that an engaging film.