Isn’t it strange how live-action children’s films have basically disappeared from theaters? I’m not talking about animated blockbusters – those have become dime a dozen these days. But standard, old-fashioned children’s films designed for younger viewers have nearly become a relic since what many consider their heyday back in the 1980s. Anything with the Amblin, Disney or the subsidiary Touchstone label conjures up grand memories for genre fans from this era. Remember The Goonies? Flight of the Navigator? How about The Neverending Story?
We still get the odd movie made specifically for kids these days, but chances of them being any good are few and far between. The genre itself has largely given way to animated-only family entertainment, with even the presence of live-action segments is usually the sign of a real stinker. Not always, mind you, but live-action children’s fare doesn’t bring in the bucks like they used to. Unless, of course, there’s a unique element to help catch the kiddos attention; and few things are better at catching attention than Pokémon. Heck, it’s right there in the tagline: gotta catch ‘em all!
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. Much like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this film is live-action with CG animated Pokémon inhabiting this strange hybrid world, with a greater focus on urban fantasy than straightforward detective noir.
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’s been a few Pokémon there as well.
Wisely, Detective Pikachu doesn’t try to place these creatures in the real world. Instead, it 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 being a Pokémon trainer. He’s also one of the only humans still without a Pokémon partner of his own, but harbors a deep resentment for the species, probably owing to the fact 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, looks like your typical colorful Pokémon but has a secret: rather than just blurt out his name, he can actually talk (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), with only Tim 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 uncovering what happened the night of the accident. Along the way, Tim and Pikachu join 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.
Smith does a good job humanizing and grounding this somewhat-surreal movie, but the real star is Reynolds, who delivers Pikachu’s sarcastic and witty quips with the same level of perfection he did in the Deadpool movies. Reynolds’ performance is really just a PG version of that character, though jokes never come off as juvenile (or venture into adult-only territory). He plays both straight-man and stooge and is the source of most of the film’s 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. Director Rob Letterman is no stranger to crafting animated and live-action hybrids – and the movie succeeds on both accounts. The Pokémon look real enough, but still feel like they belong in an actual Pokémon cartoon – or game.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu does a great job at honoring the intellectual property while trying to garner new fans. Even those with some inkling of history with the franchise will find things to like, and there’s no doubt its many fans will love spotting the endless Easter Eggs (or should that be Poké Balls?) sprinkled throughout. Even if you’re just coming to hear Ryan Reynolds quip like only he can, you’ll find much to love here. Pokémon is the highest-grossing media franchise of all time, so you have to think the filmmakers assume most heading into this movie will already be familiar with the little collectable critters – and they certainly won’t be disappointed.