Joyce Glasser reviews Pokémon Detective Pikachu (May 17, 2019), Cert. PG, 104 min.
There are probably millions of people in the UK – most of them over 50 – who know nothing about the Pokémon world, although their grandchildren, young relatives and neighbours have been engrossed in the trading cards, video games, CDs, TV cartoons, not to mention all the merchandising’s land-fill stuffers, for years. Pokémon Detective Pikachu, cheerfully directed and co-written (with three other writers) by Rob Letterman (Goosebumps), is based on the 2016 interactive video game of the same title and is the first live-action feature film based on Pokémon characters. The movie caters to the fans, but is also intended for multi-generational enjoyment and for those who know nothing about this hidden-in-plain-sight world.
How successful is it? The fans will love it. The uninitiated will struggle to make sense of certain scenes and of the rules governing the Pokémon and human interaction. It helps if you know that, expressive as the creatures are, their English is limited to saying their names. What is that red and white ball that 21-year-old insurance assessor Tim (Justice Smith) throws across a field when we first meet him? Who is Sebastian (Omar Chaparro) and why do Tim and Detective Pikachu end up in an illegal Pokémon fight club? What is a Pokémon trainer?
None of this matters very much as the plot is a somewhat episodic sequence of encounters on the way to finding Tim’s Dad, Harry, (Paul Kitson) and you soon figure out what you need to know. Harry is an ace detective who is presumed dead when his car goes over a bridge, shortly after an explosion in a high security Pokémon research lab that he was investigating. The lab is run by Roger Clifford (Chris Geere) son of philanthropist Howard (Bill Nighy) Clifford. Howard is the visionary billionaire behind Ryme City who takes credit for the new harmony that prevails between the humans and Pokémons. You could say he is a bit obsessed with it.
Tim is one of the few humans in the city (a combination of Metropolis, Hong Kong, NYC and London with recognisable London buildings) who does not have a Pokémon. But when Tim meets Detective Pikachu, he is astonished that the Pokémon can talk (and that he has all the good lines). Detective Pikachu is equally astonished that Tim can understand him. Instantly you recognise the set up for a buddy cop movie.
Tim and Pikachu discover their mutual human connection: Harry. Detective Pikachu turns out to be Harry’s partner, but he has is a problem. He has amnesia and cannot remember what happened to Harry. He has a nagging sensation, however, that he is responsible.
Ryan Reynolds’ inspired acting (he is the voice and facial motion capture of this uniquely brainy Pikachu) is what keeps the non-initiated interested. He delivers the script’s gags, witty dialogue and wise-cracks with perfect comic timing and his body is equally expressive thanks to the top notch animation. Reynolds, whose ‘portrayal’ of the cuddly, yellow, furry eponymous hero with complete with a little Sherlock Holmes cap, is the accessible bridge between the two audiences.
But something is bothering Detective Pikachu. If he was in the car with Harry, how is it that he is not dead, and, more importantly, where is Harry’s body? The explosion, as we see (but Tim and the Detective do not) was caused by an escaping Mewtwo, a genetically engineered version of the largest, scariest and most powerful Pokémon. Is there a connection between Harry, last seen driving away from high security lab’s car park and the Mewtwo emerging from the laboratory?
In one of the film’s rare breaks from non-stop (no one eats, sleeps or stops for a cappuccino in these films) action, Tim confesses that he used to love Pokémons and his dream was to be a trainer. After his mother died prematurely, Tim’s father moved to Ryme City, and spent more time with Pokémons than he did with Tim. Tim has resented the creatures ever since and has refused to have a ‘partner’. We learn this in a tête-à-tête between the new buddies that is supposed to bring a tear to your eye, but probably won’t. Smith is a good actor, so it might be the writing.
Note that we now have two father/son stories to contrast, and each has a bit of your standard variety psychological depth. Roger Clifford certainly appears to be the human villain and the Mewtwo looks like his Pokémon counterpart. But this movie teaches us not to make snap judgments about anything or anyone. Tim first realises this when he and Detective Pikachu bond and he finds himself with a Pokémon partner after all. As Tim’s friend tells him in a bit of expository dialogue early on, you cannot choose a Pokémon; it has to choose you, too.
At heart, this is a coming-of-age movie in which a lonely kid learns some life lessons. It is also a father-son movie and a detective neo-noir film, as well as an animated fantasy, that, like the Lego movies, dares to treat the underlying commercial products a bit irreverently. It is also a teen romance, as Tim meets Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an unpaid intern in a TV news network. With aspirations of being a reporter, Lucy (and her Pokémon, Psyduck) joins Tim and Detective Pikachu in their adventures. Two buddies and a girl, a bit like Jules et Jim without the rivalry.
The trouble is that for everything that is new to the older generations and uninitiated, there is five times as much that is familiar and even predictable and clichéd. In many movies young women want to be news reporters and are more talented than their older counterparts. Even more movies revolve around nefarious experiments in sinister laboratories. A year before the first Pokémon characters first appeared, Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights (The Golden Compass) had humans matched up with ‘daemons’, or animal spirits, who might sit on their shoulders much like the Detective Pikachu sits on Tim’s shoulder. In 2018’s The Happy Time Murders, a human police woman is forced to work on a case with a diminutive blue, fluffy stuffed animal who works as Private Detective. Relations between humans and creatures are in that film as here, a problem.
There is wit and heart in the film, as well as some welcome irreverent comic humour, but the real pull is Ryan Reynolds and the animators. Without them, all but the fans could stay home.
You can watch the film trailer here: