The live-action videogame based children’s movie is perhaps the most cringe-worthy genre to assault theaters.  Time after time, studios churn this junk out, putting far less effort into the films than they do any of the games they are based on.  As shown by the recent Sonic the Hedgehog trailer, if you alienate your fanbase, there’s likely to be no audience at all.   Impressively, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” manages to sidestep all of these pitfalls and elevates what could have been a by-the-numbers cash-grab with fun cinematography, impressive CGI, and witty dialog.

“Detective Pikachu” takes its title and plot from a Nintendo game that was released in 2016 (or 2018 depending on where you live).   Youthful Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) learns that his estranged father, a prominent detective in Ryme City, has just passed away in an automobile accident.  Tim takes a train into town and briefly meets with Police Lt. Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) Yoshida is at first thrilled to meet the son of Detective Goodman, but his excitement dampers as Tim makes it clear that he is nothing like his father, and only there to pick up the keys to the apartment.

Ryme City is unique in this fictional world, as it encourages humans and Pokémon to truly coexist in harmony.  Poké-Battles have been outlawed, and every citizen is encouraged to have a Pokémon companion.  The creature sidekicks all seem empathic to their human companions, but it’s difficult to gauge their intelligence level since each can only speak their own name.   That is until Tim encounters his father’s former companion, Pikachu. (Ryan Reynolds)  Both boy and Pokémon are shocked to learn they are the only ones who can perfectly understand one another.   Pikachu reveals that it was no accident that took the life of Tim’s father, but an effort to stifle his current investigation.  Unfortunately, Pikachu is suffering from amnesia and can’t recall any specifics.  It only takes a few mysterious clues and the incessant urging of the bright yellow fuzzball detective to convince Tim that it’s at least worth looking into.

On paper, it sounds like a very cliche and formulaic premise.  Which it is, but Director Rob Letterman decides to have fun with it, paying homage to the legacy of classic Noir films.  The first half of the movie is steeped in playful Noir lighting.  Tim’s face is often only half illuminated, the other hidden in the shadows while neon lights in the background form striking silhouettes.  Dialog exchanges between characters trying to learn what the other knows follows the snappy cadence of a Tommy gun.  There’s even a nod to “Home Alone” as a TV in the background plays the infamous “Angels With Filthy Souls.”   The final act drops most of this stylistic approach, but it doesn’t drop the fun.  The climatic city parade is a clever homage to 1989’s “Batman.”

The visual effects employed in the film are of particular note.  Pikachu may appear to be fully CGI animation, but a lot of the various characters were performed by puppeteers on set, and then digitally enhanced in post-production.  It’s the same technique employed by 2009’s “Where the Wild Things Are” and works exceptionally well at keeping the characters on the top side of the uncanny valley.  Occasionally some of the larger CGI setpieces suffer when compositing live characters, but it’s a minor complaint compared to how well everything else meshes.

Even with all these elements, it takes a great cast to pull it all together and make it feel real.  Ryan Reynolds is always wonderful, although his dialog is noticeably restrained in this family-friendly flick.   As Pikachu, he’s funny, but not hilarious.  Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy are both enjoyable as usual, but their roles are limited.  It’s Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton who really shine here.  They fully embody their characters and react accordingly to the amazing and occasionally slightly dangerous world they inhabit.

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” ends up being a surprisingly delightful family film, that while aimed at kids, doesn’t pander to them, and doesn’t insult the adults who brought them.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu