‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ Brings Back the Franchise for a Lively Romp

Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is a total nostalgia job. Those who remember the Pokémon phenomenon from the dawn of the millennium will cheer the return of recognizable characters in modern-day CGI. When approaching this movie it’s important to remember “Pokémon” first began as a Game Boy title in the 90s, so it’s potential as a movie has always relied on lighthearted fantasy. That’s precisely what we get with “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” pulled off in its first half with an impressive bit of craft, before then turning into just another fight fest.

Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a young guy living what seems a normal life until he is called into Ryme City with the terrible news that his father, a detective, has apparently died in a car accident. This is a world where humans co-exist with the cute, power-carrying creatures known as Pokémon, who used to be objects for battle sports. But in Ryme City humans and Pokémon live in relative bliss thanks to a powerful CEO named Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), currently caught in a rivalry with his son Roger (Chris Geere) When Tim arrives in Ryme City he meets with Lieutenant Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), who assures him it’s a closed case. While trying to get his father’s things in order, Tim is discovered by Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds), who was Tim’s father’s Pokémon partner. You see, everyone can find a Pokémon that fits their personality. But with Pikachu there’s a weird catch, Tim can actually understand him in English, which is impossible with the other Pokémons. Pikachu is convinced Tim’s father is still alive, but they need proof. After bumping into a snooping journalist named Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), they all embark on a dangerous quest to find answers to what happened to Tim’s father and what the Cliffords might be hiding. Meanwhile someone is peddling a dangerous, purple smoke narcotic that makes Pokémons go crazy.

The “Pokémon” franchise has gone through every pop media format imaginable, from video games to card games to several animated films. Yet “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” in its first act is a refreshing take on the material, giving us fun, almost futuristic sights lit with a neon, “Blade Runner”-like glow. Director Rob Letterman, who has directed family movies like “Shark Tale” and “Goosebumps,” keeps a lot of the franchise’s original spirit and manga roots intact, but attempts to give it a noir feel. The movie begins as a detective story, with dark streets where all sorts of Pokémons peek from the corners or appear on windows. The dialogue is snappy, sometimes Pikachu even sounds like a down and out detective from a 40s movie. Letterman combines this approach with some lively visuals where the Pokémon are animated with real effort and giving them distinct personalities. And of course they’re quite cute to simply look at, like Yoshida’s partner, a grumpy Snubbull rumbling behind his desk, or Lucy’s own Pokémon, the anxiety-prone Psyduck that emits a shockwave when it gets too nervous and its head “explodes.” Millennials who remember the original cartoon games and movies will be delighted to see very accurate versions of the big-tongued Lickitung and turtle-like Squirtles.

Instead of over-jamming the screen with CGI, Letterman spreads out the Pokémons while allowing Ryme City to feel organic. Even an underground club which features cage match duels between Pokémons feels like the real deal, even with the Pokémons who can blast pounding beats from their speaker-like ears. Yes it’s quite silly, but Letterman films it with the kind of verve from movies like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” This is particularly true when it comes to the relationship between Tim and Pikachu. Ryan Reynolds brings some of his “Deadpool” spirit to the character, making him wise-cracking and slightly cynical. Unlike his costumed Marvel troublemaker however, Reynolds keeps Pikachu very family friendly. He’s more prone to low-level fart jokes and bugging Tim about crushing on Lucy. Many moments are enjoyable for their pure, innocent comedy, like when Tim and Pikachu interrogate a Mr. Mime Pokémon by mime-torturing him. It’s the kind of very simple, enjoyable humor to check out after a Homeric epic like “Avengers: Endgame.”

But once the film’s somewhat slapped together plot gets going it then becomes more of a typical chases and explosions showcase. The search for Tim’s dad leads to a secret lab and the discovery of another classic “Pokémon” character, the all-powerful Mewtwo. Demolishing mountains, escapes from tall buildings and all-out destruction soon follow. Holograms will will reveal shocking secrets. The final showdown in Ryme City is just what you expect, complete with skyscrapers being blown apart and the purple gas being unleashed on all the Pokémons. At this point if you’re not a hardcore, devoted fan, then interest might start to wane.

If you love all things Pokémon then this film makes a strong effort at turning that particular vision into a fun entertainment. But if you are new to all this, it is the first half that works best, even if it’s pure goofiness.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu” opens May 10 in theaters nationwide.