Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Directed by Rob Letterman
Gotta catch ‘em all! Whoever came up with that tagline, in 1995, has a lot to answer for. For almost 25 years now, Pokémon have had so many new species and incarnations Attenborough would struggle to keep track. At the time of writing, we got 807 types of critter across 122 games, 18 films, a 22 series TV show and 22 years of comics to catch up with. In that respect, the odds would seem stacked against the (pocket) monster franchise being more credible than kitsch, and reigning in the extensive lore enough to attract a current cinema-going audience.
However, the makers of Detective Pikachu have created a new breed of Pokémon tale – albeit it one supposedly based on a relatively unknown game. It’s a buddy cop comedy that both celebrates and avoids the trappings of a well-established canon. Tim (Smith) is a former Pokémon fanatic, living in a small-town, doing a dreary office job and not thinking about hunting anything except his paycheque. Then, one day, he’s called into Ryme City (a barely disguised London, with several landmarks being clearly visible) to track down his missing father. Shortly after he starts on the trail he finds himself partnered up with the only Pikachu who can say more than his own name (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). This one is a wise-cracking, deerstalker wearing, little snoop who is addicted to caffeine and has clear abandonment issues and no memory. Together, they set about retracing Tim’s dad’s last steps. Their investigation brings them to a plucky news-reporter (Newton), an old idealist (an enthusiastic Nighy), his ungrateful heir, an underground fighting circuit (uncomfortably close to real dogfighting ones) and a top-secret project. Think of it as the cuddliest variety of murder mystery going, and surprisingly unpredictable for what it is.
As the name would suggest, the main draw is the all-singing/ all-dancing (well, he sings once and it’s hilarious), CGI-tastic realisation of Pikachu. Tim’s cute, little sidekick is not only a swell sleuth but a very likeable screen presence. In a month when Sonic had to be given a makeover, due to a bad fan reception, I’m glad to be able to say Pikachu is an absolute joy to watch in action. All of them are really, with a scene involving a Mr Mime being a contender for the year’s funniest scene. But it’s our titular hero who is the highlight. Reynolds is perfectly cast, with his turn as Deadpool gifting the film with a sense of self-awareness and cool. Yep, it’s equivalent to an odd couple narrative starter pack. But these things are tropes for a reason, and given it riffs on cop flicks with such cuteness it gets a free pass. Really, I take my red and white cap off to the effects team too – they’ve done a great job bringing Pikachu to life. The still pictures don’t do justice to the slick motion and how real his thick, fur looks. One scene in particular almost had me forget this short, chubby, electric rodent wasn’t real.
Which brings me to our way into the story. As the first Transformers showed, even sceptical audiences can be eased into what they see as a bloated toy commercial with the right human element. In that, it was a young man getting his first car. And here, it’s a young man learning about a father he never knew. Justice Smith is perfectly cast as the reluctant detective, doing the investigation for a dame and for daddy. What’s clever is that, in a knowing narrative choice, he grew up wanting to be the greatest ever Pokémon trainer. Before, as he got older, life just sort of happened to him. Now working in insurance, the cinematic shorthand for the default boring job, his quest for is as much about getting in touch the old him as solving the case. Not since the first Lego Movie have I seen a family-friendly film comment so successfully on the ageing process. So as Tim has to get back on-board with accepting Pokémon, so too do the audience. In this respect, we are asked to treat this less like a spin-off film, and more like something that their younger selves would have come up with in their sleep. In a fever dream induced from drifting off playing Pokemon past their bedtime.
Having just got the formula right on Goosebumps, director Rob Letterman is a great choice to bring it this old, kid’s property life with the unique twist and big action sequences the big-screen demands. It’s a nostalgia-fest through and through, with great gags and winks even non-fans such as myself will get through two decades of pop culture references. Thankfully it’s also a nostalgia-fest that feels is far less concerned with basking in past glories and fan service than Endgame. Though I have been, very reliably, informed there are plenty of in-jokes for people who know the canon inside-out. Computer game adaptations are famously bad, with movies like Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia failing to crossover. Yet the hugely enjoyable Detective Pikachu makes Super Mario Brothers a mere memory. Not that this is to give a recommendation per se. A lot of people simply won’t like this movie – whether it’s because they don’t know their Slowbros from Slowpokes, or their inner child is now middle-aged. Others may find the lack of stadium fights jarring or the deus ex machina, that allows the plot to continue every time the detective duo reach a dead end, awkward. Still, for those willing to go along for the warm and silly ride, be them Pokémon trainers or trainees, there’s much to love in this glorious, acid-coloured, noir.