‘Gotta catch ‘em all’ may be best known as the catch phrase of Pokémon collectors across the English-speaking world but it’s equally the attitude of Hollywood to East Asian franchise hits. Following the likes of Ghost in the Shell, and bolstered no doubt by the peculiar recent return of Nintendo’s Pokémon empire to global megastardom, Detective Pikachu finds the franchise translated for the first time to big budget, live action territory. And yet, unlike most video game properties, this one just about survives the transition. How so? The inspired vocal casting of Ryan Reynolds as a spiky, lightning tailed Pikachu has a lot to do with it.
Here’s credit where it is due: the decision to give verbal expression to a Pokémon usually restricted to squeaking ‘pika pika’ was a smart one. First imagined for a 2013 video game of the same name and similar plot, the conceit breaks the mould of countless animated Pokémon films with a sprinkle of much needed ingenuity. If little else about Detective Pikachu zings, Reynolds’ creative zest pays dividends in enlivening a trajectory largely indebted to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Justice Smith does his best as the film’s human heartbeat and reluctant hero but evidently struggles with a character no less vanilla than the tousle haired Ash Ketchum of the long running Pokémon TV series. Thankfully, Reynolds has no such issue. One can almost hear him bouncing around the studio in which his dialogue was recorded. Think of a family friendly Deadpool and you’re loosely on the right lines.
It takes roughly ten minutes for Pikachu to spring on to the scene and, in fairness to writer-director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps), the world building that precedes his arrival isn’t too sorely lacking. Certainly, what stands Detective Pikachu above the majority of cinematic video game adaptations is the ability for viewers to conceive of it as a film in its own right. This is story driven material rather than level by level plodding and exists within a wider world instead of being determined by the whims and directions afforded specific characters. In an amusing opening we meet Tim (Smith), a young insurance broker and essential orphan whose mother died years earlier and father left him for the allure of nearby Ryme City, a paradise in which humans and Pokémon live harmoniously side by side. Naturally, Tim’s relationship with the critters is strained – much in the way Eddie Valiant resented toons. When word reaches him that his father too has perished, in a tragic car accident, Tim must travel to Ryme City and collected his remains.
Once there, it soon transpires that all is not as it seems. Certainly, Tim’s father’s old detective partner Pikachu (Reynolds) and local journalist wannabe Lucy (Blockers’ Kathryn Newton) smell a rat between them. For one thing, surely Ryme City’s visionary founder Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is too twinkly to buy. For another, the mysterious eruptions of viscous purple gas across the city cannot be good news. But that’s not it. How can it be that Tim – Pokémon skeptic and neglected child – is able to communicate with Pikachu, when no other human can? Whatever the reason, as a narrative device, it works.
For undiscerning younger viewers, Detective Pikachu may well prove a compelling adventure. Parents, however, must enjoy the bouncing rapport of the film’s characters if engagement is to be sustained. The pace is surprisingly gentle and action increasingly reminiscent of the Spy Kids series, rather than the Blade Runner tone proposed early on, whilst conspiracy elements lean closer to Zootopia than Chinatown. Visual effects vary, with cinematographer John Mathieson’s decision to shoot on film, over digital, occasionally at odds with the film’s very computerised Pokémon creations. A surprisingly trippy Inception-esque sequence – ‘at this point, how can you not believe in climate change?’ – midway through is fun but narratively perfunctory.
Doing his best to convince us that his film is stronger than its script, Reynolds powers on. This is fine, he’s great. Part two will need more though.