Pokémon Detective Pikachu
2019, PG, 104 min. Directed by Rob Letterman. Voice by Ryan Reynolds. Starring Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Rita Ora, Suki Waterhouse.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 10, 2019
It’s amazing that Pokémon Detective Pikachu succeeds as a movie at all, given that it lands in the summer box-office arena with two strikes against it even before it commences: 1) It’s a Pokémon adventure, which means the film space comes packed with its own hermetic rules which baffle outsiders and flout narrative logic, and 2) It’s a film adaptation of a video game – never a good portent. Yet Pokémon Detective Pikachu is unlike any of the 21 feature-length cartoons that have preceded it: The film combines animation with live-action, which gives it a different look from the standard anime renditions. Moreover, this film introduces a Pokémon-noir element by which the Pikachu’s yellow fur becomes just about the brightest thing in the film’s color palette.
Some working knowledge of the 807 creatures in the Pokémon universe is certainly useful but it’s really only necessary to have familiarity with Pikachu (the most adorably irresistible Pokémon and the emblematic icon of the franchise) and Mewtwo (a powerful and genetically engineered Pokémon, usually the antagonist). The film is an adaptation of a recent, one-off video game starring the titular Detective Pikachu. A Sherlock Holmes deerstalker perches on the character’s head throughout the film, and the Pikachu acts as though he’s a cute private eye in a Sam Spade story.
Except for a head-scratching opening sequence, the film’s action takes place in Ryme City, a planned community created by self-proclaimed “visionary icon” Howard Clifford (Nighy, engagingly playing a twisted tycoon). Here humans and Pokémon dwell in harmony, supposedly free of the conventional master-and-chattel relationship in which humans catch the Pokémon creatures and enter them in exhibition battles. In Ryme City, humans and Pokémon team up as partners (in my mind, it’s something akin to having a therapy animal). The social harmony also stands in contrast to the Pokémon Go game in which people run around town trying to “catch 'em all” on their smartphones. In Ryme City, Pokémon seem to control their own destinies.
The Ryme City metropolis visually looks like something of a cross between the worlds of Blade Runner and Zootopia, a foggy yet colorful urban fantasia of shadows and weirdness. The masters of this universe, Howard Clifford and his son Roger (Geere), have the cartoon look of a Rupert Murdoch mogul and son, although in certain moments Roger appears a bit more like Eric Trump. A troubled young man, Tim Goodman (Smith), comes to Ryme City to find his father, who has been reported dead. Instead he finds his father’s Pokémon partner Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds, with no F-bombs but much of the sass displayed by his Deadpool character). Unlike communication in the rest of the Pokémon universe, Detective Pikachu and Tim can understand what each other is saying, a fact that alters the essential human/Pokémon relationship.
The film’s plot is either too much or too little, but whatever you decide, it’s best to give up on any expectations of true logic and just go with the flow because you know what, Jake: Forget it. It’s Pokémania.