REVIEW – ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ is saved by the casting of Ryan Reynolds

Remember the moment it was announced a big Hollywood live-action film adaptation of beloved Japanese video game, movie, and television series juggernaut Pokémon was coming, starring Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu? It was the collective “WTF?” heard around the globe. Standing as one of the year’s most unusual properties, the casting of Reynolds in Pokémon Detective Pikachu proves to be rather inspired and ultimately saves this film entirely.

While the screenplay relies too heavily on audiences having prior knowledge of the franchise to fully appreciate the end result and the film gets bogged down in a plot that’s too ridiculously overcomplicated and chaotic for its own good, there’s still plenty of silly, ridiculous fun to be had here, if you just go with it. Reynolds is a dream as the adorable titular yellow fuzzball, surrounded by a calamity of cute and bizarre supporting Pokémon characters who are sure to be a merchandise cash cow for toy stores.

Our story takes place in Ryme City, a neon-drenched metropolis of tomorrow (basically London with more neon signs or Tokyo with, uh, less Asian people) where humans and Pokémon live in perfect utopian harmony, as opposed to the typical trainer/fighter relationship seen elsewhere around the globe. After receiving a phone call informing him of his estranged policeman father’s death in a suspicious car crash, former wannabe Pokémon trainer Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) arrives in Ryme City to collect his dad’s belongings. At his father’s apartment, Tim accidentally opens a small vile containing a mysterious purple gas, which sends a few nearby peaceful Pokémon into a manic and unstable frenzy.

After inhaling a whiff of the purple potion himself, Tim is magically able to understand his father’s partner, Pikachu (Reynolds), a yellow and black furry rodent-esque Pokémon who can shoot electricity from his red cheeks and whose speech is usually heard by humans as nothing more than, “Pika! Pika!” When Pikachu informs Tim his father’s body was never recovered from the crash site and he may still be alive somewhere in Ryme City, the pair join forces to investigate. As it turns out, Pikachu was the passenger in the supposedly deadly car crash. There’s just one slight problem; someone (or something) has wiped Pikachu’s short-term memory and he has no recollection of what really happened.

With the help of a wide-eyed and ambitious cable-news intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and billionaire entrepreneur Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), the visionary creator of Ryme City, the pair investigate Detective Goodman’s disappearance and what role the mysterious purple gas may have played in the accident. As they navigate the unseemly underbelly of the city’s streets and the halls of a nefarious secret laboratory where someone has been experimenting on Pokémon, Tim and Pikachu will encounter dozens of creatures straight out of the Pokédex. Some are there to help, like the friendly Bulbasaurs or the irritatingly-mute Mr. Mime. But hot on their trail is the genetically-engineered Mewtwo (voiced by Rina Hostino and Kotaro Watanabe), whose mythical powers threaten all within Ryme city.

For those who don’t know a Snorlax from a Psyduck, Pokémon Detective Pikachu could potentially be an incoherent mess. As someone who was a pre-teen in the late 90s when Pokémon Red and Blue first burst onto the Nintendo Game Boy scene, it mostly made sense to this film critic. Just the sight of Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander made the memories of the agonising choice you make at the start of the game come flooding back. But for those uninitiated with this franchise that simply will not die, you may find yourself a little lost. As Tim rides the train to Ryme City, he watches a brief welcome video that explains the finer points of Poké-lore. But from here on in, you’re on your own.

The entire film is quite literally swarming with dozens of Pokémon characters, most of which go unnamed or referenced, in what becomes more a game of Where’s Waldo for uber-fans who will instantly recognise every single one of them. The sight of a sleeping Snorlax in the middle of a city intersection, while a Machamp re-directs traffic around him, will cause Pokémon enthusiasts to heartily chuckle. For others, they may be left wondering what the hell a large blue and white bear is doing napping in the centre of a street and why a four-armed lizard creature is assisting with traffic flow. For the record, even I had to look up the names of these two Pokémon.

Fan-service has recently become a dirty word to throw around in film criticism, but you can’t really call Pokémon Detective Pikachu anything but just that. And that’s entirely fine. Making a film to delight a fanbase who’ve been loyal to a franchise for over two decades is entirely understandable, if not a little too safe and predictable. Given the narrative deviates sharply from the canon of films and television shows preceding it, it remains to be seen how that fanbase will accept this Hollywood re-imagining. But if your only goal here is to see a stack of Pokémon characters brought to life with CGI effects, you get what you paid for.

While faithfully designed to their animated inspirations, the characters never quite look at home in the real world. Maybe they never really could and that’s part of the problem with this adaptation, but there’s just not the textural finesse and detail we’ve come to expect from CGI characters plonked into live-action settings. Still, it’s hard not to swoon and fawn every time an adorable new creature pops on the screen. Most of the Pokémon are played for comedic effect, which will no doubt delight younger audiences. We’re given one traditional Pokémon battle between Pikachu and Charizard, which is a bombastic joy to watch, even if it’s never to be repeated.

With a hefty dose of inspiration from Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film goes for noir sensibilities with its darkly-lit cinematography and old school visual elements. A good cop/bad cop interrogation routine is a particular highlight. As both a mystery thriller and buddy cop comedy, it’s a chaotic mix of laughs, intrigue, and action. It never gels together perfectly, mostly due to a wildly overcomplicated plot that’s far too complex than it needs to be. Younger viewers will be entirely lost on the finer points of the storyline. Maybe even some older audiences too. As the film flies through its 102 minutes running time, everything is so frenetic and frenzied, it’s hard to know if anything you’ve just witnessed actually made sense.

What saves Pokémon Detective Pikachu entirely is the voice-over performance of Reynolds, who brings much of his Deadpool schtick to this character, minus the F-bombs and naughty candour. We know Reynolds can do this kind of wisecracking, sardonic wit with his eyes closed and it’s deliciously enjoyable to see that humour delivered by a fuzzy yellow mouse wearing a deerstalker hat. But, unlike the merc with a mouth, Pikachu is far less brash and overconfident, allowing Reynolds the opportunity to deliver a more vulnerable character and elicit some heartfelt pathos from an audience.

The adorable Pikachu is on-screen for roughly 85% of this film, which proves to be a blessing, as the supporting cast never quite match Reynolds’ brilliance. As the real protagonist of the film, Tim is a fairly dull and uninspired character, no matter how committed to his performance Smith may be. Newton brings a jarring cartoon-like enthusiasm to her role, making it feel like she’s walked off the set of another film entirely. Nighy is clearly here for a paycheck. As is Ken Watanabe, who plays a stone-faced police officer with little narrative purpose. Oh, and look out for a bizarre and completely pointless appearance from Rita Ora, which still has me scratching my head.

With a film like Pokémon Detective Pikachu, you clearly have to leave your expectations at the door and just enjoy this absurdly ridiculous piece of cinema. While flawed in many ways, it’s still an entirely engaging experience to watch a cast of odd animal-like characters co-exist with humans who are entirely comfortable with their existence in their real-life metropolitan setting. If you’ve been a fan of Pokémon for 20 years, this film delivers in spades. If this is your first foray into the Poké-sphere, Reynolds’ electric (yuck, yuck) performance is enough to richly satisfy.

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora
Director: Rob Letterman
Producers: Mary Parent, Cale Boyter, Hidenaga Katakami
Screenplay: Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly
Cinematography: John Mathieson
Music: Henry Jackman
Production Design: Nigel Phelps
Editors: Mark Sanger, James Thomas
Running Time: 102 minutes
Release Date: 9th May 2019 (Australia)