Director Rob Letterman, working with cinematographer John Mathiesen, shot Detective Pikachu on film rather than making it an entirely digital creation, and the choice pays off. The medium allows Ryme City to feel truly lived-in rather than overly slick. That works in conjunction with the wondrous VFX design that makes these guys feel, well, real, without being creepy. They just exist in this world, sleeping in the street (Snorlax), tending bar (Ludicolo), standing in as firefighters (a crew of Squirtles). The early scenes actually play like junior-level noir, with an emphasis on moody shadows and the neon purples of the cityscape, while the script has fun with the genre's archetypes. For instance, Tim is pursued by and eventually teams up with a dogged gal-reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton), who travels with a characteristically very nervous Psyduck.
The actual mystery is slight, but did you really expect Detective Pikachu to be heavy on plot? Along the way, we meet another father-son duo, the warring Cliffords (Bill Nighy and Chris Geere), influential members of Ryme City society. Ken Watanabe is given little to do as Harry's boss, though he does interact with a growling Snubbull, while pop star Rita Ora claws her way through faux scientific dialogue in a flashback. Muddle through that and you'll discover that there's something pleasant about how Letterman seems to be more interested in letting the audience hang in a universe full of Pokémon than moving the plot along. At times you'd wish he'd let that principal guide him even further. Some of the franchise's biggest stars -- looking at you, Jigglypuff -- only get brief moments before the camera turns away.
The good news is that Pikachu is also cute enough to sustain the whole thing, with an assist from the wobbly-eyed Psyduck, who must be kept calm lest his head explode. Reynolds found a career revival in spewing unrelenting snark, but that's not the mode he operates in here. Occasionally Pikachu delivers a wise-guy quip, but the strongest beats are rooted in a mutual melancholy he shares with Tim.
Compared with most modern blockbusters, Detective Pikachu is contained, almost small, in its ambitions. But that's a relief, allowing viewers, among them nostalgic millennials and children, to bask in the charm of a Pokémon-filled environment. Also, have you seen Pikachu? Don't you just want to squeeze him??