An unsurprising exercise in brand extension and hopeful franchise starter, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, the first, big-screen iteration of Pokémon, the made-in-Japan series of interconnected stories, videogames, trading cards, and animated films (TV and feature-length, including 21 of the latter, an unexpectedly mind-blowing number if there ever was one) centered on the titular, super-charged fantasy creatures who battle for supremacy with the guidance of their human trainers, partners, and friends, fails to fully or even partially embrace the inherent weirdness of its central premise in exchange for a slipshod, sloppy, slapdash neo-noir storyline involving a twenty-something searching for and reconnecting with his lost, presumably dead father (figuratively, if not literally). Repeatedly slowed down by logic lapses, coincidences, and contrivances that can be listed or described in a single review, Pokémon Detective Pikachu misses the mark by too much to be called anything except a middling misfire.
When we meet the diminutive, yellow-furred, wide-eyed “Detective Pikachu” of the title (voiced by Ryan Reynolds, strictly in PG-mode), he’s completely lost his memory, if not his faculties. He’s an amnesiac eager to recover the memories tied to the disappearance of Tim Goodman’s (Justice Smith, Jurassic World: Forbidden Kingdom) estranged father, a detective with the Ryme City Police Department. Detective Pikachu and Tim’s father were on the trail of a massive, earth-shaking conspiracy potentially involving Ryme City’s corporate and civic leaders. Founded by a supposedly benevolent, wheelchair-bound billionaire, Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), eager to create a harmonious city where humans and Pokémon could live, work, and play together, Ryme City has all the markings of a throwback neo-noir city where nothing’s what it seems and judging anything or anyone by surface appearances will surely lead to trouble of one kind or another.
Tim crosses paths with detective Pikachu in his father’s apartment; Tim to clear out his father’s apartment after his apparent death and detective Pikachu because he has nowhere else to go except the address handwritten into his deerstalker cap. Tim, ever the reluctant hero unaware he’s on a conventional hero’s journey, resists detective Pikachu’s suggestion that they team up and find out what happened to Tim’s father and the why behind his father’s disappearance, but a visit to the local police station for a meet-and-greet with his father’s superior, Lieutenant Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe, sadly underused), combined with the staircase exchange with an over-excitable junior reporter/intern/potential romantic interest, Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), finally convinces Tim to do right by his estranged father. Along with Lucy’s unlikely Pokémon companion/partner, the literally explosive, Psyduck (a rare scene-stealer), they join forces – and share a cramped car ride – to unearth the [insert yawn here] mystery at the center of Pokémon Detective Pikachu.
Working with a sizable, if not unlimited, budget, co-writer/director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps, Monsters vs. Aliens, Shark Tale) commendably fills the screen with dozens of Pokémon characters realized with the best CGI money can buy. Detective Pikachu is an obvious delight and not just because Ryan Reynolds brings his trademark humor and snark to the role, but because Letterman and his animation team have managed to create a fully realized, animated character with distinct body movements and expressions this side of adorable and cute (merchandizing perfection by any definition). Other Pokémon aren’t treated with the same love or affection – probably due to a combination of budget factors and a desire for fidelity to their representations in videogames, animated TV series, and other related media – but they’re still easily recognizable for the Pokémon lovers and Pokémon collectors in the audience.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu will leave anyone expecting more than a single Pokémon vs. Pokémon battle wanting for more. They won’t get it. There’s exactly onePokémon vs. Pokémon battle, a relatively short duet between a depowered detective Pikachu and a Charizard that ends moments after it’s just begun. Instead, Letterman and his co-writing team structure Pokémon Detective Pikachu as a loose procedural with Tim and the title character falling and stumbling into clues, making hasty, ill-thought-out (i.e., underwritten) conclusions, before moving on to the next location to find another clue (rinse, repeat, etc.). Eventually, Pokémon Detective Pikachu has to reveal the answers behind the central mystery. When they are, Pokémon Detective Pikachu goes well and truly over the rails (or more accurately, over a bridge) and into generic sci-fi territory and the evils of scientific experimentation [insert additional yawns here], with the enigmatic Mewtwo, a catlike, telepathic, bipedal creature with a bodybuilder’s physique and an intense, if justifiable, grudge against humanity, at the center. By then, though, it’s a little too little, too late for Pokémon Detective Pikachu to deliver anything except a sputtering, unsatisfying, ultimately disappointing result.