WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for Detective Pikachu, in theaters now.
When Detective Pikachu was first announced, the bizarre mishmash of tones seemed to be a genuine strength for the film. Blending the cute creatures of the Pokemon universe with the typical trappings of noir would help the movie stand out in an increasingly crowded field of blockbusters. And for the first third of its runtime, Detective Pikachu thrives on the absurdity of seeing a Pikachu trying to be a detective.
But shortly after the halfway point of the film, Detective Pikachu switches gears and becomes more enamored with a sprawling Pokemon adventure instead. Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) and Lucy's (Kathryn Newton) quest takes them out of the noir-inspired Ryme City and into nature, only returning for the seemingly prerequisite CGI throwdown that serves as the film's climax. Detective Pikachu should have focused on what worked, and committed fully to being a noir parody.
Putting The Detective In Detective Pikachu
For the most part, the film centers around the despondent Tim. He's the perfect, boring noir protagonist, even working in insurance like characters from the classic noir film Double Indemnity. His reluctance to be dragged into this mystery makes him a natural lead for this kind of story, and deadpan reactions to the typical bizarreness of the Pokemon universe make for some great comedic beats.
He's not the only tweak on noir trappings, though. There's the femme fatale reporter Lucy, who tries hard to lean into the "sultry journalist" role early on despite being an unpaid intern who typically only writes listicles about how cute Pokemon are. The seasoned detective on the case is a cute little Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) that only Tim can understand, meaning the two have to work together if they want any chance of figuring out what happened to Tim's father, Henry.
The investigation even sets up a red herring to surprise the audience by revealing the otherwise kindly Howard Clifford as the real villain. There are lots of little beats that work best when the film is having fun with its noir trappings, finding unique twists while still adhering to the formula.
All these elements make the early portions of Detective Pikachu a delightful parody of the noir genre. Just like the greatest parodies of all time, there's a genuine affection for these stories and their plot beats that elevates this part of the movie. The heartfelt emotions in neon light work because they fit with the tone of the story, which the film is smart and self-aware enough to recognize. But for some reason, the film decides to abandon that approach in the second act.
Going Big For No Real Reason
Discovering that Henry Goodman may have left a lead before he disappeared, Tim, Pikachu, Lucy and her Psyduck head into the wilderness to find out more. While the initial investigation plays out with some noir moments, all of that drops away when it's revealed that Mewtwo has a major role to play in the mystery.
As soon as the scope of the film expands to accommodate this reveal, the noir aspects fall by the wayside. Tim and Lucy aren't on the hunt for clues anymore, they're running through a giant CGI forest morphing and moving around them. Even when pieces of the puzzle reveal themselves, it's often not through actual detective work, but instead by Mewtwo literally blasting memories into Pikachu's mind.
Detective Pikachu becomes a much more conventional film at this point, even as it becomes increasingly bizarre. The small clues that led to new enigmas in the first act are replaced by multiple convoluted exposition dumps in the third act. Character motivation is ignored in lieu of giant CGI battles. A mystery that initially seemed to focus on a son looking for his father turns into Bill Nighy using a mind control harness to swap bodies with a genetically enhanced super Pokemon. It just stops being a noir parody, despite the title.
Shoulda Stayed A Gumshoe
Detective Pikachu works, in large part, due to the world it constructs. Not just the wilderness where Pokemon operate as more intelligent animal life, but primarily in the bustling and authentic Ryme City. Seeing Pokemon in cage matches, navigating the docks and even just having them move around a truly urban environment feels wholly unique. For an example of a similar film that committed to the theme, look no further than Disney's Zootopia. That film similarly explores some surprisingly heavy topics while framing it around a noir for cuddly, cute critters. It recognizes the trappings of these stories and twists them without ever really breaking them.
The difference is that Zootopia knew to stay within the world it had created for itself. By losing track of itself and evolving into a different kind of movie, Detective Pikachu loses the strongest elements of the film.
Directed by Rob Letterman from a script written by Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, Detective Pikachu stars Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe and the voice of Ryan Reynolds.