‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ film review: classic pop culture franchise serves up witty, catch ’em all blockbuster

You teach me and I'll teach you!

Live-action blockbusters starring iconic animated furballs are big in 2019. Just this week, Sonic the Hedgehog dropped its first trailer, while The Lion King teaser caused a major Twitter meltdown back in April. Disney classic The Lady In The Tramp is set for a reboot too. Cartoon-phobia is out, and cute fluffy critters are in. Pikachu, the cutest of them all, is up first.

Adapted from the video game of the same name, Pokémon Detective Pikachu follows young insurance salesman Tim Goodman who recruits a smart-talking electrically-charged mouse — aka Pikachu — to investigate the death of his high-flying, workaholic dad.

There are spectacular CGI set-pieces, evil mad scientists and many, many adorable creatures. Bulbasaur, we are in love. Beyond the monsters, Detective Pikachu is a pop culture nostalgia junkie’s treasure trove. Stuffed with ’80s references (including a surprising ‘Seinfeld’ nod), this fantasy action hybrid looks like a Blade Runner spin-off. Ryme City — the world’s central metropolis — is painted in neon pastels and seems permanently in shadow for the first half of the film. Even the music is awash with melancholic synths à la Greek electro-wizard Vangelis. Detective Pikachu is a film very much in debt to its influences.

Juicy nuggets aside, Rob Letterman’s quirky creature feature relies on its strong central characters too. First time lead Justice Smith is convincing as likeable everyman Tim, while Ryan Reynolds unloads zinger after zinger from a whip smart script. Their chemistry carries the movie’s first half, before a bizarre Rita Ora cameo stops everything dead. Famous faces pop up frequently in Detective Pikachu, with Diplo, Bill Nighy and actual Ryan Reynolds appearing suddenly without warning. Obviously, studios can cast well-known celebrities, but the role should match up to the name. Nighy, in particular, appears to be phoning it in, while Diplo doesn’t even get a proper character. After a strong opening 90 minutes, the film climaxes with a rushed finale filled with cliched thriller ‘twists’ that fool no one.  It’s a shame, because there’s a lot to like about Detective Pikachu and it’s genuinely funny. Final third syndrome doesn’t totally ruin the enjoyment, but when you try and force most of the plot into 20 minutes, it rarely ends well. Especially if you’re out of Pokéballs to make it all magically fit.