Pokemon Detective Pikachu
Favourite Pokemon? I’ve always loved the Squirtle evolution track, especially Wartortle, whose Bubblebeam I used with regularity on any occasion when I have played Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow (there are ONLY 151!). That or Sandslash, because who ever wants to mess with something called Sandslash? Oh, and I have fond memories of the first time I got through the Elite Four with my over-leveled Alakazam. Played the card games, watched the anime, visited the Pokemon Store in Tokyo, bought the plushies. Hell, I think I even saw Pokemon: The Movie in cinemas, replete with Ash Ketchum being turned into stone (I think) and restored through the power of friendship (right? – may have to look that up again).
So it seemed that Pokemon Detective Pikachu (hereafter referred to by the much better title of just Detective Pikachu) was made just for me, now in my thirties and ripe for being targeted with heapings of nostalgia. Rob Letterman’s film seemed to hit all of the right buttons, with a recourse to that childhood obsession along with what seemed to be a slightly mature tone: the trailers make Detective Pikachu out to be a murder mystery, of sorts, after all. With the comedy stylings of Ryan Reynolds, a funky soundtrack and a host of adorable CGI pocket monsters, this seemed like a Guardians Of The Galaxy-esque slam-dunk in the making. Critical hit, or did it hurt itself in its confusion?
Tim (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City, where humans and Pokemon live side by side, to put the affairs of his recently deceased detective father, Harry, in order. After a strange encounter with would-be journalist Lucy (Kathryn Newton) Tim runs into a deerstalker-wearing Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who, aside from being able to talk, claims to have been his father’s crime-solving partner. Believing Harry to be alive and sensing a conspiracy, Pikachu enlists Tim’s help to get to the bottom of things in Ryme City, where all is not as it seems.
I got a very weird feeling watching Detective Pikachu, and thinking about it afterwards I believe I can put it down to a realisation of very misplaced expectations. Maybe I have gotten a bit too spoiled from the nostalgia bait that consistently takes a tone that is halfway between a mature film and a kids movie, and that’s what I basically expected here. I can guess that the audience I watched Detective Pikachu with, nearly all adults of a similar looking age to myself, thought the same.
And we were all wrong. Detective Pikachu has no really serious flaws that it make a dud, it’s just simply not meant for me at all. Yes, it’s a little bit of a murder mystery, yes it can be a bit violent at times. But, when the duels are over and the Pokemon are back in the Pokeballs, Detective Pikachu is a dyed-in-the-wool PG film, that is aimed primarily at children. It’s filled with cartoony characters and cartoony action, and it only on the rarer occasions does it actually take itself seriously. I shouldn’t really be surprised, or dissapointed, by that, and yet I sort of am, in a very selfish kind of way.
With the most basic of cop-procedural spines to maintain the idea that we are watching something akin to a Pokemon gumshoe story, Detective Pikachu aspires to more mature story-telling – some of the plot points involve illegal street drugs and a violent underworld – but never gets anywhere near that level. To put it another way, the film is more Nancy Sue than Who Framed Roger Rabbit? even if it would prefer to be seen as the latter.
You can tell it’s a kids movie, not because of all the CGI wonderment or the cute Pokemon or the straight-and-narrow progression of what attempts at action an romance that it has, but primarily because the film has absolutely no issue with talking down to its audience. You can only explain it by believing that the writers were told to make a movie that was going to be watched, and have to be understood by 7, seven year olds. It’s the only explanation for scene after scene where characters blurt out awkward lines of dialogue bluntly describing what has just occurred, where the excuses for plot twists are hinted out so obliquely minutes before they happen, or where the basics of the villainous scheme to be overcome make such little sense.
Just taking that last one, if you’re anything like me, you see a certain kind of big-name casting suddenly show up in an authoritarian role early on in a picture, and you just instantly think “Ah, the film’s secret bad guy has arrived”. That this character’s scheme involves a fairly nonsensical quest to mess with Pokemon DNA for the purposes of something or other isn’t all that great as an addition to the lack of suspense. They are, in other words, a cartoon villain, whose motivations are threadbare and thus don’t really offer much in terms of deeper examination.
Taking all that in tow, we really need to judge Detective Pikachu on a different set of criteria. It’s certainly quite funny, and not in a puerile or completely dumb kind of way, leaning into its premise wherever it can. Reynolds is very clearly having a ball as an eclectic caffeine-obsessed version of everyone’s favourite electric rat, quick with non-sequitur humour and oddball commentary.
In truth, in terms of the energy being employed and the comedic timing being demonstrated, he’s not far off a PG version of Deadpool, most notably in scenes where he and Tim interrogate an unimpressed Mr Mime or in an impromptu Pokemon battle with a drugged up Charizard. Reynolds is at his absolute finest when given carte blanche to be a goofball, and that’s what this part is.
Justice Smith is decent too, giving the script and the film the only bit of emotional hitting power it really has as he contemplates the death of his father, and he plays back and forth really well with Reynolds, despite the fact that they aren’t really sharing the screen in a traditional sense. Newton should probably have a bit more of an involvement, but is relegated, especially in the final act, to the role of a quasi-romantic onlooker, but is fine otherwise; much like the rest of the cast, they largely exist so that Reynolds, and Smith to a lesser extent, will have somebody to bounce off of.
And the film largely succeeds as a by-the-book action-adventure that just happens to include Pokemon. Car chases, aerial battles, there’s even, as mentioned, a duel, and one does wonder if this film’s success might lead to something a bit more, shall we say, traditional in terms of filmed adaptations of the franchise in future. It’s neat seeing the creatures that formed a key part of my childhood’s entertainment on the big-screen in this manner, and even in the parts that don’t land quite as well, such as an extended terrain altering encounter with some giant Torterra, there’s an undeniable nostalgia-fuelled charm to the proceedings.
It’s a fun looking movie. A lot of the Pokemon don’t actually fit in with the environment at all, but in a way this is actually strangely appealling, a reminder that you watching a project that is basically just a cartoon. The Pokemon of Ryme City, a place where Pokemon are not captured or battled, but instead work side by side with humans is well realised, often showcased in quick visual gags (A Machamp uses his extra arms to be a traffic warden, Ditto’s double as versatile personal assistants); the film, quite deliberately I would imagine, downplays the idea of Pokemon being used for quasi-magical dog-fighting. At other times Letterman will try and turn the thing into neo-noir experience, with lots of dingy back alley shots, flaring neon and crowded urban spaces, but it’s all just temporary: the majority of the film, in going with the tone, is a bright exercise, from start to finish.
Seeing as how it’s been nearly a quarter of century since Nintendo’s last foray into making a film out of its creations – Super Mario Brothers if you’re wondering – Detective Pikachu really needed to be a success, and in its own way, it is. We have here a video game movie that actually does what it needs to do if you view it through the prism of the target audience, which comes out at around 20 % adult, and 80% below the age of twelve. It has some great performances from the leads, a barmy plot that sweeps you up, and just generally captures the fun, variety and hook of pocket monsters without needing to see people use them to fight. But it is not quite as advertised, and will not leave the kind of impression you would have expected if you are anything like me. Temper those expectations, and you will probably enjoy Detective Pikachu more than I did. Nonetheless, recommended.
(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).