For audiences of a certain age, the phrase “Pokémon: Detective Pikachu” might sound like utter gibberish. “Detective Pikachu” may not be for everyone – but it’s surprising how much it could be. Boasting “Blade Runner”-style neo-noir visuals and a wise-cracking Ryan Reynolds, would it shock you to hear that “Detective Pikachu” just might be for you?
When news broke that Ryan Reynolds would be voicing Pikachu as the titular detective, it seemed like a joke. It still is a joke, but it’s also so, so real, and surprisingly, it works. For the first live-action movie adaptation of the Pokemon characters, specifically the 2016 “Detective Pikachu” video game, director Rob Letterman and writers Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Derek Connolly and Nicole Perlman were smart to lean into an absolutely preposterous and campy premise, placing the cuddly yellow fantasy creature Pikachu within the darkly realistic human confines of Ryme City. Oh, and he also sounds just like Deadpool.
The premise and world-building of “Detective Pikachu” is completely committed and spot on. You’ve got your smart-alecky little Pikachu in a tiny Sherlock Holmes hat. You’ve got your wounded young man, Tim (Justice Smith), hoping to learn more about his police detective dad who died in a fiery car crash. You got your femme fatale, a plucky reporter with a nose for a story, Lucy (Kathryn Newton). Throw in a couple of Murdochian media moguls – Howard and Roger Clifford (Bill Nighy and Chris Geere) – while bathing the entire atmosphere in neon lights filtered through mist, and you’ve got yourself a proper detective story. The cognitive dissonance of populating the sultry human world with fantastical creatures like fire-breathing Charizards and glowing Flareons just makes it that much more silly and weird.
If you’ve never heard of Pokémon, allow me – someone who is admittedly rather shaky on the details – to explain. First there were trading cards, and a cartoon, and ultimately a geolocation phone game that allowed one to indulge in the fantasy of being a Pokémon trainer, a human who catches super-charged animal creature alien things in a red-and-white ball and pits their Pokémon in battle against others. But mostly, it’s about collecting – gotta catch ’em all!
In “Detective Pikachu,” Howard Clifford has created a Ryme City as a utopia where human and Pokémon live in harmony. Why, then, are underground Pokémon battles popping up and police detectives bursting into flames? What’s with the mysterious “accident” at a remote Pokémon experimentation facility? There’s also this purple gas that drives all the Pokémon absolutely wild. Sounds like a case for Detective Pikachu!
But as viewers, chasing these threads is a truly baffling experience that only gets more garbled by the minute. There’s a powerful Pokémon called Mewtwo, created by a scientist whom you never know is good or bad (played by Rita Ora of all people), and a nefarious plot to trap all humans into their Pokémon pals – possibly because Pokémon “can evolve into better versions of themselves.” Has anyone in Ryme City heard of therapy?
While the world and the characters of “Detective Pikachu” are incredibly fun, the story within that world suffers. Most of the exposition is provided in flashback-style holographic re-creations, and the action sequences are so inane, chaotic and incomprehensible that you may find your mind wandering to grocery lists rather than the film’s stakes. For so much promise within the premise, the story itself just can’t catch ’em all.