Film critic Scott Wilson reviews the first live-action Pokemon film after 21 – 21! – animated movies.
Detective Pikachu – ★★★☆☆
It would have made for a bold prediction that Pokemon’s first live-action film would be a noir. The series, known for its adorable creatures, expansive geography, and comic villains in Team Rocket, lends itself well to child-friendly action-adventure, a kind of My First Trip to the Cinema. Instead, under the neon lights of Ryme City, 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) and a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) which used to belong to his father seek to unravel a mysterious disappearance.
Unlike the animated films – of which there are 21 – Detective Pikachu has grit. PETA once objected to the franchise because the concept of Pokemon battling each other was akin to cockfighting. Here, down some backstreet in a city where humans and the creatures live harmoniously, there are illegal battle arenas populated by shady characters, soundtracked by heavy bass beats.
Not that the anime skirted around big ideas – Pokemon 2000 is about an imbalance of nature, focusing on climate change long before it was cool. Detective Pikachu, for all its genre affectations, is still quite silly. A missing parent, a benevolent businessman with a nefarious son, a passing glimpse of the four-armed Machamp directing traffic; the darkness of its setting is no match for the pleasures of its world-building, rich with visual references and nostalgic cues for long-term fans.
Such an idea for a film appeared bonkers when it was first announced, and yet, it works (and, admittedly, is bonkers).
Reynolds, not far enough removed from Deadpool to play a character this wise-cracking and not invite comparisons, somehow makes the film come together. His stream-of-conscious dialogue in the titular role stays on the right side of exhausting, the film’s runtime just brief enough that the visual gag of an adorable yellow mouse wearing a deerstalker hat voiced by Ryan Reynolds doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The rest of the film is perfunctory. Smith is fine as Tim, a young man who’s long given up his dreams of becoming a Pokemon trainer, now stuck in a desk job. His rapport with reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton) is as sweet as can be expected, with Newton committing to the somewhat more cartoonish role of a journalist ready to blow a story wide open. Her constantly stressed companion, a Psyduck, adds some comic tension, a danger to everyone around him if he gets too worked up.
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Director Rob Letterman has form in the role of delivering perfectly competent entertainment. His last film, 2015’s Goosebumps starring Jack Black, went down better than expected, and the same can be said of Detective Pikachu. Such an idea for a film appeared bonkers when it was first announced, and yet, it works (and, admittedly, is bonkers). Reynolds is charming and has proven his comedic talent time and again, somehow translating it even to an animated ball of electricity. Bill Nighy commits like only Bill Nighy can, saying words like “Mewtwo” as if Shakespeare had written them.
That Detective Pikachu is anything other than a complete mess is miraculous. With the recent Sonic film trailer receiving such a backlash that his whole design is being reconsidered, this is a testament to the admiration the filmmakers have for the Pokemon world. Fans of the series will be happy to see the pocket monsters look so tactile, attempting to capture on the big screen what Pokemon Go did for augmented reality. Detective hats off – Detective Pikachu is a real good time.