Pokémon. The expansive and pervasive role-playing game series turned media giant produced originally by Game Freak and Nintendo back in 1996. There have been competitors for it’s throne, to be sure, but nothing has truly come close to the power that Pokémon have held in the public’s consciousness since their debut. However, despite Pikachu and company’s almighty grip over every form of media from video games to card games and animated television shows, they’ve never dipped into the world of live-action. Nintendo learned a harsh lesson in 1993 from the ill-fated Super Mario Bros., one they were not keen to repeat.
Almost thirty years later, they have surreptitiously dipped their toe back into the water with Detective Pikachu, based not on the primary and most popular of Pokémon games, but on a relatively recent addition to the franchise. A 2016 adventure game based on the player teaming up with a wise-cracking, hard boiled talking Pikachu, it might seem a bold choice to base a brand new media venture on, but it’s actually rather ingenious. Rather than set expectations high by asking audiences to engage with what they’re expecting from a Pokémon movie, Nintendo has changed the paradigm, and therefore, gotten in front of expectations and how those expectations can inform responses.
As a decisive fan of both the noir detective genre as well as a childhood lover of Pokémon, Detective Pikachu was set to check a lot of boxes, but though it’s bursting with the imagination and cuteness brought by it’s source material, and buoyed by the gameness of it’s performers, Detective Pikachu is nevertheless hampered by the dichotomy brought to bear by it’s competing styles.
The plot mostly concerns the mystery surrounding the death of Justice Smith’s estranged police detective father, presumably at the hands of Mewtwo (no surprise being front and center with Pikachu as Mewtwo is probably the second most well-known Pokémon). Smith arrives in Ryme City, a haven for Pokémon-Human relations, to handle his father’s effects, ends up stumbling upon our titular talking Pikachu, and the movie unfolds as the duo learns to work together and cobble together just what happened that fateful night and why.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is probably it’s closest contemporary, but whereas that classic film aligned itself firmly in the world of an adult story in the world of children’s aesthetics, Detective Pikachu is adrift between pleasing both a potential crowd of youngsters as well as the fans it knows grew up with the first generation of Pokémon (who justifiably get the most screentime in the film). Besides Roger, it reminds most of the recent Power Rangers, also a movie cast between who it was trying to please, and really coming up with succeeding nowhere.
A cast lead by Justice Smith (a decent enough cypher, and a real pro at selling his emotional scenes with a small digital electric mouse) and Ryan Reynolds ably work through the material, even when there are plot leaps made, particularly in the last half. It’s not a big deal, after all, there are some beautifully rendered Bulbasaurs to appreciate. The heavy lifting done by nostalgia as well as the gorgeous effects on display mean that the plot doesn’t have to worry too much about making complete sense, particularly as a mystery. That’s okay. The detective side of things in Detective Pikachu mostly takes its cues from Raymond Chandler, where the plot mostly happens to and around our hapless protagonist as he does his best to survive. It’s a staple of the genre, frankly.
There are other ovations to noir, like a delightful scene of the protagonist duo interrogating a Mr. Mime that is easily one of the best in the film. Reynolds and Smith are at their best here, ably riffing at one another while also indulging in some brilliant physical comedy. Individual scenes like this are when the film sings; particularly when legendary actor Bill Nighy (who is having an absolutely incredible time here) is delivering lines like “Pikachu could never defeat Mewtwo in a fight!”. The film is truly at it’s best when it leans into noir tropes while using the backdrop of the Pokémon world rather than toeing the line of being a family friendly blockbuster.
It’s difficult to imagine, given the constraints of what Nintendo and the studio intended with the film’s coverage of multiple quadrants, where this movie could have excelled more in one direction or another. Either it could be a more a campy noir or more a fun adventure movie, but mixed between the two, it succeeds at neither.
Despite that, it’s truly incredible to see the easy way Pokémon are realized onscreen in Detective Pikachu. Perhaps Nintendo was right to wait so long to foray back into live-action now that digital effects have caught up to realizing their legendary creations next to real people. It lends credence to the idea that this is something that can work, and opens the door to more adventures in the world, whatever they may be. Despite the foibles of Detective Pikachu, I’m sure I’ll be there seeing whatever comes next, too. I’m a bit of a sucker for those cute little Pocket Monsters.