If you had told me back when it was first announced Ryan Reynolds would be starring as the adorable yellow rodent Pikachu in a live-action Pokémon movie, that two years later I'd actually be looking forward to the resulting movie, I'd have said you'd taken one too many zaps from the furry critter's electrified tail.
But then the marketing for "Pokémon Detective Pikachu" made it look like a fun, kid-friendly neo-noir romp, and I was improbably intrigued. Though I'm a bit disappointed to report the actual film isn't quite as good as that potential led me to hope, it's a reasonably entertaining way to spend a couple hours at the movies.
Shockingly for a property that's existed for nearly 25 years -- starting out as a series of video games then expanding to include trading cards, animated movies, TV shows, comics, and more -- "Pokémon Detective Pikachu" is the first live action film to be made from the multimedia franchise.
That means the film has to please longtime fans while serving as an introduction to those like me who don't know their Squirtles from their Bulbasaurs. Luckily a couple friends were kind enough to give me a crash course in Pokémon lore before we headed to the theater, and it was helpful to have some basic knowledge of the universe, though I should note, not a necessity.
Set in a world where Pokémon and humans harmoniously coexist, the film follows a young loner named Tim (Justice Smith) after he's informed his estranged police detective father, Harry, has died suddenly and tragically in a car accident. Traveling to nearby Ryme City to settle his father's affairs, Tim ends up finding an amnesia-stricken Pikachu fumbling around Harry's apartment searching for answers to a past he believes is connected to Tim's father. To make things even stranger, though most Pokémon speak in a language that consists only of their own name, Tim finds that he's the only human capable of understanding what Pikachu is saying.
Together the unlikely duo set off to find out what happened to Harry. They're soon joined by Lucy (Kathryn Newton), an intrepid junior reporter with her own Pokémon sidekick, a high-strung billed critter named Psyduck, who will explode into a massive blast of destructive energy if he gets too stressed. So basically, my spirit Pokémon.
The scrappy team's investigation eventually leads them to a city-wide conspiracy involving benevolent millionaire Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), his media mogul son Roger (Chris Geere), and the fate of a powerful, genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo.
The central mystery gets rather convoluted (a possible side effect of the sheer number of writers with a hand in the film), and the pace does drag a bit until Pikachu shows up -- the wisecracking gumshoe gives the film a much-needed jolt of energy. When it comes time for a resolution, not all of it comes together as much I would have liked, and it relies heavily on last-minute explanations and villain monologuing. Still, those narrative shortcomings result in an appealing shagginess to the film.
Sure, you can get salty over the fact that the main function of the movie is still to help The Pokémon Company sell more products. But crucially it doesn't feel that way, and I appreciate that its makers didn't go for the most obvious, straightforward adaptation of this universe for its live-action debut. When the premise is as admirably odd as this one, I'm willing to cut it a little slack.
Director Rob Letterman ("Goosebumps") and his writers liberally pepper the film with plenty of references and Easter eggs from the universe and related pop culture, including a pretty great nod to "Home Alone" and an action-heavy climax that bears more than a passing resemblance to Tim Burton's 1989 "Batman." The noir elements call to mind "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," though "Detective Pikachu" is even more squarely aimed at children. And like that film, it makes for a pretty decent introduction to the tropes of the noir genre for those young audiences.
But most impressive is the look of the film, which is undeniably dazzling. Appropriately for the noir-tinged story, production designer Nigel Phelps bathes Ryme City in neon lights and reflective rain-slicked streets. The decision to shoot "Detective Pikachu" on 35-millimeter Kodak film lends cinematographer John Mathieson's images a nice tactile feel to match the film's remarkably lifelike creatures.
One of the best decisions the production made was to enlist R.J. Palmer, an artist who'd earned a following by posting his realistic Pokémon illustrations online, to work on concept designs. With his help, the effects bring a realistic weight and life to the fantastical animals. And really, Pikachu is just unbearably cute.
As the start of a potential franchise, "Pokémon Detective Pikachu" is flawed but promising; I can see this universe becoming a fun sandbox for future creators to play in. Who knows? Now that all the necessary world-building is out of the way, and with inevitable sequels surely in the pipeline, it might actually be worth catching 'em all.