Director: Rob Letterman
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Ken Watanabe
Let’s start with an admission that should put a lot of this review in a certain shade: I’ve never gotten myself involved in Pokémon before at all.
I’ve never watched the anime. I’ve not played the video games. I’ve not collected the cards. Elements of it have drifted into my sphere of existence, the way we probably inhale all sorts of spores or bacteria that our bodies are ready to defend against, but I’ve never participated, until now. But this American ‘live action’ take on the beloved Japanese franchise pika’d my interest (sorry, not sorry). So here is a review written from the outside, looking in, fingerprints on the glass, trying to make out the good stuff…
Detective Pikachu is a Pikachu who is also named Pikachu (which seems a bit like naming someone Human when you think about it). He’s voiced by Ryan Reynolds and he’s some sort of electric mouse, effectively. He lives in the bustling city of Ryme in a sort of alternate universe where humans coexist with lots of oddball monsters who are, like, their familiars? So everyone’s pretty much a witch or something.
But the story doesn’t start there. We get the human element first. Enter Tim (fresh faced Justice Smith), a young man who works in insurance in a small town. He journeys to Ryme when he learns that his dad has been in a car accident caused by some kind of hairless flying squirrel. Possibly its a salamander. A self-styled loner, Tim has daddy issues. Looking through his old man’s office, he meets Detective Pikachu, and the two come to the conclusion that Tim’s father Harry isn’t dead but missing. It’s up to them to track him down. And stop the spread of, basically, PCP for Pokémon; a purple gas that makes the colourful creatures go crazy when its inhaled.
Cracking wise and not at all adopting a cutesy voice for his mo-capped character, Ryan Reynolds basically plays this as if it were a PG-rated Deadpool, which works for the most part. I’d say it seems at-odds with the design of the character but, without greater context, I’ve no idea if that’s the case. Regardless, it works, though at times he looks like a fuzzy-faced James Corden. There’s humour here that crosses the generation gap, but thankfully without resorting to covert lewdness. Still, one images a few instances of younger kids coming out of the theatre and asking, awkwardly, “What’s a birth canal?”. And the greatest line here references climate change, so there may be some fun conversations in a few cars home.
Still, the important point here is that – by and large – the funny works. I assume this is a fairly heavy bastardisation of the text (I didn’t see Pikachu’s baseball-loving friend anywhere), but that does allow Rob Letterman’s film to nod lovingly at one of the giants of genre filmmaking; the noir. Incredibly, Detective Pikachu is shot on film. It has a nice amount of texture and grain in the image (making it technically more pleasing than Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers – just sayin’). Letterman plays in the visual language of the noir, especially early on. There are dimly lit office scenes that conjure that certain mood. Meanwhile, out in the broader city of Ryme, there are notable splashes of neon and an emphasis on Asian heritage; a playful nod to the fact that Detective Pikachu arrives in 2019; the year of Blade Runner.
And, for the record, Pikachu does more detective work than Deckard ever did.
Bill Nighy supports as the man who made all of this possible; the pioneer who built Ryme City from the ground up. It’s not hard to see where this story is headed, even as it tries to wrong-foot younger viewers. Tim gets a little more human interaction from plucky young reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton), whose own pet Pokémon is some sort of anxious Howard The Duck, but really this is Reynolds’ show. In spite of a lot of sci-fi bobbins toward the end – especially concerning the salamander/squirrel thing – there’s enough warmth and gumption here to warrant further adventures (even though the end of the film suggests that’ll be unlikely). Regardless, I’d come back for more, if asked.
Detective Pikachu is at its best when it sticks to its buddy-cop and/or noir basics, and the third-act lurch into superhero-style disaster aversion does it few favours. But this swerve isn’t enough to undo the goodwill generated in the body of the picture. It may not smash the glass ceiling of expectations Bumblebee style, but it at least gives said ceiling a little knock.
I don’t know what the deal is with the little dudes carrying onions on their backs that look like Toothless from How To Train Your Dragon, though. You’re better off asking someone else about those things.
PS: There’s an early scene of Tim on a train being licked by some creature with a big tongue and I thought, really, its world isn’t too far removed from that of Cronenberg/Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.
PPS: There’s a conversation in this film, also, about billionaires over-extending their reach and the consequences of animal testing… It has levels. Nicely unexpected.