Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy
Director: Rob Letterman
Writers: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly
Detective Pikachu is a weird idea even for Pokémon, and we’re talking about a franchise whose whole concept is about prepubescent children travelling around the world and pitting their captive, magical pets against each other in combat. We’re talking about a franchise that has designed creatures resembling a walking three-headed palm tree, a humanoid mime-clown-dummy hybrid, and an obese drag queen wearing blackface. We’re talking about a franchise that infamously had an episode of its animated series banned overseas because it featured an underage girl getting ogled at in a beauty contest and an effeminate man sporting fake breasts and a bikini. If ever there was a franchise for which you can always count on the unexpected, this is it. And yet I still could not have predicted that their first ever venture into the realm of live-action cinema would have included a hard-boiled Pikachu with the voice of Deadpool wearing a deerstalker hat and solving crimes. What’s even stranger is how surprisingly ordinary that story ended up being. It’s like when Andy Kaufman took the stage to perform a comedy bit, only to nonchalantly eat a bowl of ice cream; you’re caught so off guard by the lack of payoff that you wind up laughing at the non-jokiness of it all. This movie embodies a similar oxymoron whereby it’s too strange to be ordinary and yet too ordinary to be strange.
The movie is set in Ryme City, a truly breathtaking metropolis that dazzles the eyes with how fully realised and brimming with life it is. With its shadowy, rain-soaked, film-noir ambience and its neon-lit, futuristic aesthetics, Ryme City looks like it could inhabit the same universe as Blade Runner were it not for the peculiar and wonderful creatures that inhabit it. In a world where Pokémon are typically treated as prize fighters and held in confined spaces except when called upon to do battle for human amusement, the celebrated inventor Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) founded this city as a utopia where humankind and Pokémon could live side by side in harmony. It is a place where Pokémon are free to roam around of their own accord, perform jobs and community services (we see, for example, a Machamp directing traffic) and are essential to the community’s way of life. As is often the case in these kinds of stories, the city also has a hidden underbelly where the seedier members of society gather to partake in such illicit activities as illegal Pokémon battles. The obvious comparison here is Who Framed Roger Rabbit which similarly paired human beings with childish cartoon characters in a detective story with comedic overtones. While Ryme City is further removed from our own world than the L.A. of the Robert Zemeckis film, the level on which the movie’s vision of its fantastical utopia is so total and absolute that even those who are total strangers to the world of Pokémon will be drawn in.
Or they might were their introduction to the city not seen through the eyes of such a bland protagonist. Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a young accountant who gave up on all dreams of being a Pokémon trainer as a kid when his mother died. Despite his friends’ attempts to draw him out of his reclusive lifestyle by seeking out a new Pokémon companion, Tim favours a lifestyle as mundane and nondescript as his personality. His life is shaken up however by a phone call from Ryme City telling him that his estranged father, a detective, was killed in the line of duty along with his Pokémon partner, a Pikachu. Tim comes to the city to put his father’s affairs into order only to find in his apartment the Pikachu, alive and speaking in a voice that only Tim can understand. Pikachu, the adorable mouse-like thunder child with a penchant for coffee and snarky one-liners, explains that he and Tim’s father were investigating an unknown, gaseous substance that infects Pokémon with a rabid state of enragement and that they were closing in on the truth when the car crash that took the detective’s life occurred. From here the movie turns into a buddy-cop comedy as the unlikely duo set out to learn the secret that got Tim’s father killed.
While Smith does what he can to endear the audience to this blank slate of a character and gets in a few amusing looks of befuddlement and frustration as he’s dragged all around the city from one crazy encounter to the next, the real star of the show is his electrifying co-star. Offering a PG, family friendly spin on his Deadpool persona, Reynolds steals scene after scene as the cute, fast-talking, caffeine-addicted Pokémon. The visual effects employed in bringing the lovable critter to life are stunning, favouring a photo-realistic look without sacrificing his cartoon expressiveness and agility. The film is so good at having Pikachu move around the space of a given scene and interact with the environment in ways that Roger Rabbit could only have dreamed of that the illusion never breaks even for a second. The CGI animating him is so richly textured that even when his fur gets wet, dirty or charred, it still looks physical and authentic. The animation on the Pokémon throughout, of which there are dozens, is just as spectacular with some personal highlights being Lickitung living up to its name, an interrogation scene where the duo tries to get Mr. Mime to talk, and Psyduck’s explosive headache. The movie is at its best when focusing on the Pokémon at its disposal, especially Pikachu, and thankfully that’s most the time.
The story itself is pretty thin, especially when compared to Roger Rabbit which did such a great job of tying its mystery plot with some rather pointed satire and social commentary on demographics in Los Angeles and show business. Here the puzzle Tim and Pikachu must unfolds in a pretty predictable fashion and at the very end it doesn’t have all that much to say about anything save the usual themes of family and companionship that you’ll see in most children’s films. Even then the way it tries to tie it all together to Tim’s tragic backstory, particularly the fractured relationship with his father, never really lands the way that it should and it feels like the whole idea needed just a few more revisions at the screenplay stage. There is however some Enid Blyton Famous Five charm to the mystery insofar as it serves as an excuse to place the young characters into all of these scrapes that they only narrowly escape. Adding to that effect is the inclusion of Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a rather underwritten character who would have amounted to little more than a token love interest were it not for Newton’s spirited performance, embodying her as a cross between Nancy Drew and a 1930s Hollywood newspaper movie heroine. I was especially a fan of her spotlight reveal, which felt like a vintage film noir flourish.
A weak plot and an uninteresting hero are significant problems for a film to have, which is why Detective Pikachu will never be an all-time classic, but they aren’t fatal when there is so much wonder and splendour to enjoy in the magnificent designs and enchanting creatures that make up this world. There are moments, few and far between but still, where the movie almost feels like it could’ve been a Ghibli production, where it attains a state of visceral wonderment that almost transcends such feeble things as plot. Perhaps the problem comes from taking a Japanese property, a profoundly weird one at that, and trying to conform it to Western storytelling conventions. Perhaps a version of Detective Pikachu that leant more on the wild fantasy-adventure and eye-popping unearthly spectacle of its video game/anime origins would have given us the movie that a smarter plot and a more interesting lead never could. But that’s a guessing game. For what it is, this is a pretty fun movie boasting an outstanding visual oeuvre (as realised by Letterman and cinematographer John Mathieson) that feels so refreshingly unlike anything else being made in Hollywood today. While it isn’t exactly the best like no one ever was, it is a thoroughly enjoyable watch and I’d like to see a lot more of where it came from.