Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Rita Ora, Bill Nighy
Running time: 104 minutes
Underground cage fighting; sinister substances; gallons of black coffee. If the title of Rob Letterman’s Pokémon movie were a little more ambiguous, you might have mistaken it for a film plucked straight from the filmography of John Huston.
As it is, Pokémon Detective Pikachu isn’t actually a million miles away from a Huston classic. A neo-noir mystery tale set against the backdrop of a towering metropolis full to the brim with secrets, conspiracy, revelation and fluffy companions, this is a film that might just conjure images of The Maltese Falcon and Blade Runner before it evokes warm memories of link cables, curb-side GameBoy battles and shiny pieces of cardboard being placed in plastic sleeves and meticulously categorised in binder files for every jealous neighbourhood kid to gawp at but never touch.
For over two decades we’ve been trying to catch ‘em all: from video games, to trading cards, to immersive smartphone apps, to animated projects for screens both small and big. There seems to be very few pies Pikachu and The Pokémon Company don’t have a finger in. But for the world’s most profitable franchise — one that leaves a gaggle of comic book superheroes and some devastating finger clicking in its dust — it’s rather surprising that it’s taken this long for the studio folk to get their Psyducks in a row and release the series’ inaugural live-action feature film.
Of the extensive source material available within the world of Pocket Monsters, it might appear strange that Pokémon Detective Pikachu takes its inspiration from a 2016 video game that few people seem to know even existed. Trading Poké-battles for a more Poirot approach towards Pokémon’s flagship yellow mouse, Letterman’s film follows a small-town twenty-something named Tim Goodman (Smith) who himself has swapped Pokéballs for pencil pushing at a local insurance firm. Content with his place in the Pokéverse, the disappearance of his estranged father — a renowned detective — soon sets in motion a series of events that lead Tim to the dizzying, Ridley Scott-inspired Ryme City — a vast civilisation created by visionary businessman Howard Clifford (Nighy) where Pokémon fighting has been outlawed and a harmony between Pokémon and humans can thrive — to uncover the mystery.
There he meets the eponymous, electric, caffeine-addicted, crime-solving rodent (voiced by Reynolds). The pair quickly discover they have a unique ability to communicate with one another, and, with the help of plucky junior reporter Lucy Stevens (Newton), venture down neon-lit streets and through abandoned laboratories in search of clues, closure and an answer to the question of what an earth Rita Ora is doing in a Pokémon film.
Tried and tested conventions largely dictate play here. Between budding friendships, blossoming romances, emerging heroism, and some fairly signposted revelations, you hardly need HM05 to see where this formulaic foray is headed. Thankfully, the film has Ryan Reynolds to compensate for the rather shoddy plotting. As the undeniably cute, deerstalker-clad Pikachu, Reynolds conducts both wit and charm, shooting just the right voltage of energetic charisma, sharp one-liners and knowing nods through the CGI mouse that he gives real character to one famously known for its exclusively single-word diction.
Equally impressive is the world-building talents of Letterman and co. Given the bar setting of yesteryear (Middle-Earth) and yester-err-month (the MCU), there seems to be a comprehensive understanding of how to tackle a universe as vast and celebrated as Pokémon. Only the most carefully crafted landscape will suffice and it’s an area in which the film duly delivers, pumping its world full of Easter Eggs, vibrancy and detail like a Primeape on steroids. The striking Ryme City, in particular, while painting something of a disorienting picture of what a head-on collision between London and Tokyo might look like, competently captures the intricacy, immenseness and nostalgic power of a world in which humans and Pokémon co-exist. Even if you’re someone who’s unable to discern their Rattata from their Raticate, has indifferent feelings towards Charizard, or finds themselves asking who, or what, a Mewtwo is, there’ll be something in this colourful, cheerful, genre-mashed existence that’ll keep you from snoozing like a Snorlax.
Far less irritating than previous video game corporate cash-ins, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a messy little bundle of joy with an on-form Reynolds at the helm. Plus, Bill Nighy spouting the Poké-lingo is wholeheartedly 2019’s ‘we never knew we needed it’ thing.