‘Detective Pikachu’ Film Review: Humans and Pokemon Pal Around in Overstuffed, Underwritten World

Live-action-plus-animation take on the popular game feels both ambitious and lazy, frenzied and sluggish

Detective Pikachu
Warner Bros./Legendary

Is there a Pokémon whose power is to move through your eyeballs and brain and then leave absolutely no impression? Because that was my experience of watching “Detective Pikachu,” a CGI-heavy live-action/animation hybrid based on the popular game-anime-manga franchise (and specifically on the eponymous Nintendo game).

And yes, as someone who has never played, read or watched anything Pokémon-related before now, I know that this movie wasn’t made for me. (That’s why we had expert Johnnie Jungleguts share his thoughts on the film as well.) After trying to make head or tail (or snout or blowhole) of the proceedings here, I can understand the confusion of someone attempting to keep up with “Avengers: Endgame” without having watched any of the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe titles.

But there’s a difference between being the 22nd feature in a franchise and the first — if “Detective Pikachu” had any interest in getting newcomers like me interested in a big-screen world where people and pocket monsters live harmoniously side by side, the screenplay (by a quartet of writers, including director Rob Letterman) makes little effort to explain the rules of this world and the functions of the creatures who inhabit it.

We open on Jack (Karan Soni, “Deadpool”) trying to convince his lonely best pal Tim (Justice Smith, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) to get back into Pokémon training by capturing a little beastie out in the middle of the field. (These creatures all have names, most of which the movie mumbles into gobbledygook; on the rare occasions where I understood what a Pokémon species is called, I’ll share that information.) Soon after that attempt goes terribly wrong, Tim gets bad news: His policeman father is presumed dead.

Tim travels to Ryme City, a place where people and Pokémon live side by side rather than as trainer and competitor, not unlike the characters in “The Golden Compass” and their “daemon” familiars. In his dad’s apartment, Tim gets a face-full of a mysterious purple gas that a) apparently drives any and all nearby Pokémon into a frenzy and b) allows him to understand his father’s partner, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), even though all anyone else can hear the yellow creature say is, “Pika! Pika!”

Since the body of Tim’s father was never found, Pikachu (who has otherwise lost his memory) is convinced that he must still be alive, so he and Tim set off on an investigation. With the help of cable-news intern Lucy (Kathryn Newton, “Ben Is Back”) and billionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), the founder of Ryme City, they track down experiments designed to make Pokémon bigger and more hostile, particularly a powerful creature known as Mewtwo (voiced by Rina Hostino and Kotaro Watanabe).

Anyone over the age of 11 will deduce the identity of the villain and the twists of the detective story, which would have been fine if “Detective Pikachu” offered enough delight in the visuals, the performances or the humor. Instead, we get a movie that’s both overstuffed and underwritten, making it seem simultaneously ambitious and lazy, frenzied and sluggish.

It’s not a complete failure: Reynolds works overtime to sell his middling dialogue, and Letterman (“Goosebumps”) directs a breathtaking sequence in which Tim, Lucy, Pikachu and the excitable Psyduck run through a forest that seems to be collapsing in on them at 90-degree angles, but the pleasures here are few and far between.

Production designer Nigel Phelps (“Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”) gives us a Ryme City that’s equally inspired by “Babe: Pig in the City” (look one way, it’s Tokyo; look another, it’s London) and “Blade Runner,” but without the visual pop of either, mostly because cinematographer John Mathieson (“Mary Queen of Scots”) aims at “shadowy noir” but lands in “overcast” instead.

The usually charismatic Smith is stuck being the person who has to cry in a Pokémon movie, but there’s no faulting him for commitment, even as he spends most of the movie acting opposite a tennis ball representing the Pikachu to be added later. He makes himself present in this bizarre world, which is more than can be said for either Nighy or Ken Watanabe (as a police officer), both of whom seem to have convinced themselves that keeping a straight face is enough to collect their respective paychecks.

If you have waited your entire life to see this world brought to life, and to watch humans and Pokémon occupy the same space, then “Detective Pikachu” may well be everything you ever wanted. But for those of us who don’t know a Jigglypuff from a Charizard, this film scores low on wit, coherence and engagement.