'Detective Pikachu' Is a Sweet, Stylish Adventure Movie with a Crushingly Cute Hero
The minute I left a screening of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, a single thought crossed my mind: I would really like to hug Detective Pikachu. He's so little and furry! He reminds me of my terrier, if my terrier could talk. He's a tiny yellow beacon of love and support with chubby cheeks and expressive eyes who also sounds like Ryan Reynolds, but I promise you that's weirder on paper than it is in actuality.
This is all a deranged way of saying that Detective Pikachu is a bizarrely successful enterprise on multiple levels. It's both a triumph of character animation -- one of the most stylish combinations of animation and live action in years -- and a sweet story that doesn't reach too hard to seem au courant and is in keeping with the Pokémon franchise. On a more cynical note, it should do a pretty good job at selling a bunch of toys and video games and shepherding the craze to another generation.
When Detective Pikachu was announced, it immediately garnered attention for the strangeness of its concept. Based on a 3DS game originally released in 2016, the movie features the most iconic Pokémon -- largely known for issuing non-verbal, high-pitched noises as Ash Ketchum's always-outside-his-Pokéball sidekick -- voiced by Reynolds, the man known for his relentlessly sassy turn as Deadpool. The very idea of Pikachu uttering words sent audiences into a tizzy when the character spoke in 2017's animated Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!, but now he'd also be... a detective?
It's with relief that I tell you that Ryan Reynolds' Pikachu is not the same thing as Ryan Reynolds' Deadpool. This electric mouse is not a sarcastic piss-taker, but rather an amnesiac lost soul buoyed by caffeine and a burning notion that he's destined to solve mysteries. (He also has a wee hat.)
All of Pikachu's adventures are grounded in his relationship with a young man named Tim Goodman, played by The Get Down's Justice Smith. At the movie's outset, Tim gets news that his estranged father Harry has been killed in a fiery crash that coincided with some Pokémon breaking out of a lab facility. Tim's called to a locale known as Ryme City to deal with his detective dad's affairs. This city, with shades of Blade Runner's Los Angeles, has outlawed the notion of Pokémon battles -- those fights that have served as the basis for all sorts of games, television, and movies over the years -- in favor of a harmonious coexistence between them and humans. People still catch Pokémon, but they become sort of pets/assistants/constant companions.
Tim, who once upon a time dreamed of being a Pokémon trainer, doesn't want a sidekick, animal or otherwise. He just wants to close up his dad's apartment and go home. That's when Pikachu comes waddling into the picture. Turns out Tim is the only one that can understand the fellow -- everyone else just hears him squawk "pika pika" -- but their connection goes beyond that. According to a note in his hat, Pikachu was Harry's partner. He doesn't remember anything about what happened, but he's sure the elder Goodman is still alive. The first clue as to Harry's whereabouts? A purple substance known as "R" that makes Pokémon lose their precious little minds.
Director Rob Letterman, working with cinematographer John Mathiesen, shot Detective Pikachu on film rather than making it an entirely digital creation, and the choice pays off. The medium allows Ryme City to feel truly lived-in rather than overly slick. That works in conjunction with the wondrous VFX design that makes these guys feel, well, real, without being creepy. They just exist in this world, sleeping in the street (Snorlax), tending bar (Ludicolo), standing in as firefighters (a crew of Squirtles). The early scenes actually play like junior-level noir, with an emphasis on moody shadows and the neon purples of the cityscape, while the script has fun with the genre's archetypes. For instance, Tim is pursued by and eventually teams up with a dogged gal-reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton), who travels with a characteristically very nervous Psyduck.
The actual mystery is slight, but did you really expect Detective Pikachu to be heavy on plot? Along the way, we meet another father-son duo, the warring Cliffords (Bill Nighy and Chris Geere), influential members of Ryme City society. Ken Watanabe is given little to do as Harry's boss, though he does interact with a growling Snubbull, while pop star Rita Ora claws her way through faux scientific dialogue in a flashback. Muddle through that and you'll discover that there's something pleasant about how Letterman seems to be more interested in letting the audience hang in a universe full of Pokémon than moving the plot along. At times you'd wish he'd let that principal guide him even further. Some of the franchise's biggest stars -- looking at you, Jigglypuff -- only get brief moments before the camera turns away.
The good news is that Pikachu is also cute enough to sustain the whole thing, with an assist from the wobbly-eyed Psyduck, who must be kept calm lest his head explode. Reynolds found a career revival in spewing unrelenting snark, but that's not the mode he operates in here. Occasionally Pikachu delivers a wise-guy quip, but the strongest beats are rooted in a mutual melancholy he shares with Tim.
Compared with most modern blockbusters, Detective Pikachu is contained, almost small, in its ambitions. But that's a relief, allowing viewers, among them nostalgic millennials and children, to bask in the charm of a Pokémon-filled environment. Also, have you seen Pikachu? Don't you just want to squeeze him??