Expectations are a funny thing. Had I seen Pokémon Detective Pikachu, oh, six months ago – before the first trailer set the internet into a tizzy at the prospect that this film might actually be good – I would’ve have been pleasantly surprised. Of course, at that stage, all I knew about the film was ‘there’s going to be a Detective Pikachu movie … with Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu?’ so finding that the end product was an actual honest-to-goodness movie with jokes and action and gorgeously animated Pokémon would have been wonderful.
Instead, I saw Pokémon Detective Pikachu (okay, I’mma just starting calling it Detective Pikachu from now) with relatively high expectations … expectations the film fell short of. Not far short, necessarily. The main strikes against the film are (a) its incredibly convoluted, borderline incoherent storytelling and (b) its inconsistent comedic rhythm. (b) is more significant than (a) because I can live with narrative chaos if I’m having fun, and when Detective Pikachu can’t quite stick a landing on its occasional jokes it only underlines how wobbly the storytelling is.
Detective Pikachu is squarely aimed at kids, so part of me wishes it had leaned into the silliness of its mystery storyline – why can Pikachu talk? What’s this weird gas that makes Pokémon feral? What happened to Tim’s (Justice Smith’s) dad? – rather than treating it with Chinatown-esque gravitas. (Though, to be fair, they may have only been following in the footsteps of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) It’s one of those overwritten mysteries that fits together eventually but actually doesn’t when you think about it for too long, but whatever. This is a film by four credited screenwriters with another three story credits, which explains a lot.
I’m not sure who’s to blame for the film floundering as a comedy. Ryan Reynolds definitely isn’t the culprit; he’s not doing anything revolutionary, mind you, but he’s again demonstrating his knack for wisecracks that singlehandedly propelled Deadpool to stupid box office numbers. I laughed out loud at quite a few jokes, but too many land with a thud. The writing is okay, the delivery is fine, but something about the editing rhythm smothers the punchline. It’s a similar story to the difference between Deadpool and Deadpool 2, with the latter boasting better action but lacking the comedic pacing of its predecessor. They really need to start giving these films to directors with a comedy background.
That’s said, I don’t want to get too negative towards director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps, Shark Tale, Monsters vs Aliens). While he may not be simpatico with Reynolds’ rhythms, he has made a genuinely gorgeous film. I’m not sure whether to praise the product design, the effects team, the cinematographer (John Mathieson, who shot this dang thing on 35 mm) or Letterman – or all four. But even if the film itself is uneven and lumpy, the world they’ve woven, where Pokémon and humans live side-by-side in the mega-metropolis of Ryme City, is the kind of place you just want to live.
The Pokémon, particularly, are easily the best-looking CGI creations yet seen on the big screen. Pikachu is irrepressibly cute, with his stuffed-animal fur never looking anything but realistic. I could’ve spent an hour looking at the establishing shots, where humans trudge along accompanied by noble Growlithes or a Machamp directs traffic around a dormant Snorlax. Detective Pikachu’s world all just looks so damn good that you wish there’d been a better, more interesting, more fun film set within it.