Given its worldwide popularity, Pokemon has taken a particularly long time to make it to the big screen. There have been plenty of Pokemon movies, some of which may have actually played theatrically, but they’ve all been in the animation style of the original series and its reboots, and have been safely ignored by mainstream audiences and critics. Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is the first time the material has been promoted to live-action, event-movie status, using state-of-the-art digital effects and A-list actors. Just seeing the beloved characters represented with depth and dimension – beloved to people of the right age either now or 20 years ago – is enough to overcome some fairly ordinary plot elements that are decidedly not state-of-the-art.
The plot of Detective Pikachu actually feels cribbed from a couple of older films, one of which hit cinemas 30 years ago (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) and one that charmed us far more recently (Zootopia). Rob Letterman’s film imagines a utopian city where Pokemon and humans live together in harmony, and where the battles that are part and parcel to Pokemon lore have been outlawed. The relationship that exists between Pokemon trainers and their Pokemon does exist, though, as most humans have a “Pokemon partner” with whom they can communicate intuitively, if not linguistically. This language barrier is breached when a young man named Tim (Justice Smith) is going through the belongings of his father, a detective who died in a suspicious car crash. Hiding in among his things is a Pikachu, the partner of Tim’s father. And when the Pikachu speaks, Tim hears actual words rather than just the “Pika pika!” that everyone else hears. Those actual words are spoken by Ryan Reynolds.
The film is not really done in the noir style that the title suggests, but it does involve unravelling a mystery of what happened the night Tim’s father died, because Pikachu has no memory of the night. It appears his father may have been investigating a strange purple gas sold on the black market during underground Pokemon battles, which temporarily turns placid Pokemon into ferocious killing machines. (Another connection to Zootopia). There’s a shadowy media conglomerate looming in the background as well as the enterprising reporter (Kathryn Newton) who’s investigating strange occurrences related to this gas.
Detective Pikachu is a solidly competent entertainment. The smartass line readings of Ryan Reynolds, known to most of us from Deadpool, work almost as well in a family-friendly movie like this one, though apparently there are enough vulgar outtakes to make an R-rated version that would resemble Deadpool a lot more directly. The reason Tim can hear this Pikachu speak never receives a satisfying explanation, and one suspects it’s largely a) to get a star of Reynolds’ calibre to appear in the movie, alongside budding star Justice Smith, and b) because we need to be able to hear this character’s thoughts if he’s really going to function as a co-protagonist. “Pika pika!” is cute, but it’s not enough linguistic output for a title character.
Alas, the story itself is not the reason to see this movie. Who the villain is and what he/she wants is something we’ve seen in a thousand movies if we’ve seen it in one. Some of the actual dialogue during the big “villain explanation speech” might have literally been cut and pasted out of other screenplays. Still, there are a few other twists and plenty of clever moments. More so than it does in many movies, the plot feels secondary to the success of Detective Pikachu, and its insipid qualities are less detrimental than they would be elsewhere.
The best takeaway from the movie is that it feels like it’s only just started to pry the door open to what this universe has to offer. A lot of times with movies like this, your one visit to the world feels like enough, but future Pokemon movies seem like a welcome prospect. Given that the number of Pokemon has expanded tenfold over the years, there figure to be a wealth of possible characters and ideas to explore. Maybe next time we’ll get James Corden voicing a Snorlax.