Isn’t it strange how live-action children’s films have basically disappeared from theaters these days? And even when we do get one, chances of them being any good are rare. I’m not talking about animated blockbusters–those have become dime a dozen. But standard, old-fashioned live-action children’s films designed for younger viewers have nearly become a relic since their heyday back in the ’80s and ’90s. I’m talking anywhere from mainstream cult classics, such as The Goonies, to relatively more obscure titles like Camp Nowhere.
While Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is partially animated, it’s set in a tangible universe and is mostly live-action–a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which it pulls some obvious influence from. But this movie isn’t so much a detective noir as it is an urban fantasy.
Despite having a history spanning decades of games, animated features, toys, candy and everything else you can imagine, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is actually (partly) based on the hit 2016 game of the same name in which our adorable Pikachu donned Sherlock Holmes’ famous deerstalker hat and set out solving crimes.
For some of you over 40 or if you’re simply unfamiliar, Pokémon are little animal-like creatures that need to be captured, traded, battled and loved. There are hundreds of species in the world, each with special powers and abilities. If there’s been a Nintendo gaming console in your home at any point over the past two decades, chances are good there have been a few Pokémon there as well.
Wisely, Detective Pikachu doesn’t try to place these creatures in the real world. Instead, the film takes place in a fictional universe where Pokémon and humans live harmoniously in the colorfully named metropolis of Ryme City. Founded by Dr. Clifford (Bill Nighy), it was envisioned as a place where the two species could coexist and help each other function in society. In this world of symbiotic usefulness each person has a Pokémon designated as his or her partner, though each Pokémon has to be chosen by fate.
Our film opens as a giant humanoid creature, Mewtwo, escapes from a scientific lab, shooting a fireball towards a car crossing a bridge, which sends it flying over the edge and crashing. We’re then introduced to Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a 21-year-old insurance agent who once dreamed of becoming a Pokémon trainer. He’s also one of the only humans still without a Pokémon partner of his own. He harbors a deep resentment for the species, owing to the fact that his estranged father spent more time with them than he did with his own son.
It turns out the earlier car crash involved Tim’s father, Harry Goodman, who perished in the accident. Unsure how to feel, he’s tasked with going to Harry’s apartment to collect his dad’s things. There, he encounters Pikachu, who looks like your typical colorful Pokémon but has a secret: rather than just blurting out his own name like every other creature, he can actually talk (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). But somehow only Tim is able to hear him. He explains to Tim that he was actually Harry’s partner, and was assumed to have also died in the accident. Instead, he was left with amnesia about what exactly happened, and believes Harry must still be alive as well.
Now Tim and Pikachu must solve the mystery of Harry’s whereabouts, as well as uncover what happened the night of the accident. Along the way, the two of them link up with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an aspiring reporter who believes that Tim’s father was investigating something big prior to his death. To be honest, Newton’s performance is probably the film’s weakest link as she’s the only one who reminds us that we’re watching a children’s film.
While Smith does a good job humanizing and grounding this somewhat-surreal movie, the real star is Reynolds, who delivers Pikachu’s sarcastic and witty quips with such perfection. His performance is really just a PG version of his own Deadpool character, but the jokes never come off as juvenile. He plays both straight-man and stooge and is the source of most of the humor. While a lesser kids’ movie would have tried to find jokes in every character possible.
Creating creatures that appear realistic amidst a human world is a challenge. You don’t want Pokémon–which are inherently animated–to come off as too different than their source. But you also want to feel like these animated creatures can believably coexist with humans. And the movie succeeds on both accounts. The Pokémon look real enough, but also feel like actual Pokémon from the cartoon or game.
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu does a great job at honoring the intellectual property while also trying to garner new fans. Even those with some inkling of history with the franchise will find things to like. Pokémon is the highest grossing media franchise of all time, so filmmakers have to assume that most people watching this movie will already know who many of the more popular creatures are, so their relatively limited explanation is adequate. Filled with a plethora of Easter Eggs, this movie won’t disappoint longtime fanatics either. They’ll have a blast watching it and be excited about what’s to come in the future.
Originally published on May 10, 2019 at https://www.popzara.com/movies/movie-reviews/pokemon-detective-pikachu-2019/