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Pokemon is one of those phenomenon that has succeeded in every other medium in which it has been introduced. It has been popular trading cards, video games, an incredibly long-running animated series, which has spawned several animated films. Now the franchise movies into the world of live-action cinema in the first big Hollywood production, Detective Pikachu. The movie seems destined to conquer the box office as well, and while the film may satisfy existing fans of the franchise, it's unlikely to win many new ones.
Describing the world of Pokemon is more than a little complicated if you're not already familiar with it. All wildlife in the world is made up of a wide variety of different creatures, all of which are called Pokemon. They come in all different sizes and types. Some bear resemblances to animals we would be familiar with. Others look more humanoid, while still others just look like bizarre monsters. Some of them are kept as pets by humans, others are trained to battle each other by specialized Pokemon trainers in what is essentially MMA meets cock fighting.
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is an insurance adjuster in this world when he learns that his estranged father, a police officer in Ryme City -- a place where humans and Pokemon live together -- has died. Tim goes to Ryme City to close out his father's affairs, but in his father's apartment he meets Pikachu, a little yellow fuzz ball of a Pokemon voiced by Ryan Reynolds. In a shock to both of them, the human and the Pokemon can completely understand each other. Pikachu has lost his memory, but he has a deerstalker cap with Tim's dad's address in it. Pikachu wants to investigate the circumstances of Tim's dad's disappearance (a body was never actually found) in order to hopefully get his own memory back, and he convinces Tim to go along with him.
The first thing that you'll notice about Detective Pikachu is that the movie looks absolutely amazing. Ryme City feels like a real place despite the fact that half its citizenry look like creatures from The Island of Dr Moreau were given a Hello Kitty style make over. The city itself is an interesting fusion of east meets west, and every new Pokemon you meet is just as adorable/bizarre/WTF as you can imagine.
If you're not familiar with Pokemon at all, that's ok. The movie makes a point of filling you in on every new creature as it is introduced, but then that's part of the problem. Detective Pikachu does its best to work the important details of each creature into dialogue, but it feels forced every time. Here's its name, here's what it is. Does it have some special skill or ability that we need to know about? That will be explained by a character either just before, or just after, you see it do that skill or ability.
With a name like Detective Pikachu you might expect the movie to be some sort of actual mystery, but put that thought out of your head. Despite the attempt at a noir feel, any resemblance to a classic whodunit is surface level only. There are no clues to put together in order to figure out the solution. The plot is too much of a mess for that. Most of the answers end up being explained as "Because Pokemon," but it's unlikely even the most ardent fans will be able to put many of the pieces together. When the villain is revealed, it's more than a little predictable. The villain's plot is less so, though only because it comes out of nowhere and makes zero sense.
If you've seen the trailers for Detective Pikachu, then you know that whatever other failings the movie might have, Ryan Reynolds clearly had a lot of fun voicing the title character. Unfortunately, if you've seen the trailers, then you've seen most of the good jokes that Reynolds, and the movie as a whole, has on offer.
Justice Smith does a solid job as the slightly clueless human searching for answers and playing straight man for Reynolds. Kathryn Newton's Lucy, a wannabe reporter who teams up with Justice's character, feels like she's supposed to be a loving nod to the film's noir roots, which would be nice if the character was given any significant attention or development. Lucy is the one that actually gets most of the information that keeps the plot moving, but rather than the audience seeing any of it, she does it all off screen.
In the final analysis, while exposition is ham-handed and motivations are far from clear, there's a charm in Detective Pikachu that is undeniable. Seeing these creatures come to life is going to be a blast for fans, and while some of the references to the franchise might be lost on non-fans, Ryan Reynolds' charisma combined with seeing one lovingly crafted Pokemon creature after another will likely carry you through.
It's all but a foregone conclusion that Detective Pikachu is designed to be the first film in a franchise. Ryme City is so amazing to look at that I certainly wouldn't be against visiting again one day.