Pokemon Detective Pikachu: Catchy, by David Bax
If you’re not familiar with Pokémon and you’re concerned that Pokémon Detective Pikachu, the first live-action film in the many-tendriled franchise, won’t make sense to you, don’t worry. Making sense is not really on this movie’s list of priorities. Sure, the basic premise of the property is explained via a video welcoming new arrivals to Ryme City, the film’s primary location. But, after that, the narrative particulars of who’s working for whom, who’s impersonating whom and what motivates any of them aren’t always clear. It’s with a mixture of condemnation and praise that I point out that none of that really matters.
Justice Smith stars as Tim Goodman, a young, small-town man raised by his grandmother after his mother died and his father, Harry, left for Ryme City and buried himself in his work as a policeman. When Harry dies in a car crash, Tim must come to the city to wrap up Harry’s affairs. It’s there he meets his dad’s Pokémon partner, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), and learns that Harry’s death might not be as cut and dried as it seems.
Detective Pikachu appears to be set in the near future or perhaps an alternate present. In either case, Pokémon‘s Japanese origins clearly led director Rob Letterman and his creative team to look to Blade Runner for production design inspiration. The gray, urban alleys stuffed with neon signs and food stands are right out of Ridley Scott’s vision of 2019 Los Angeles. But that’s hardly the only reference to 1980s American movies on display. Tim–a barely-adult with a ho-hum job in a quaint town whose life is turned upside down by a cute, furry creature–is a nearly one-to-one update of Billy from Gremlins. And the final setpiece, involving weaponized parade balloons, is straight out of Tim Burton’s Batman.
Yet the dominant reference point comes along with the movie’s detective trappings. Sure, Pikachu may wear a tiny, adorable replica of Sherlock Holmes’ deerstalker cap but it’s another type of sleuthing that has captivated Letterman and his many co-screenwriters. Detective Pikachu is, first and foremost, film noir. Tim is the milquetoast who gets dragged into the moral and chromatic gray of the urban underworld. There’s even an upbeat spin on the femme fatale, a young reporter named Lucy (Kathryn Newton) who knew Harry was onto something big well before Tim came along. Letterman has some fun kiddie-fying the seedier trappings of the genre, like swapping booze out for caffeine.
And, like a lot of noir, Detective Pikachu has an abundance of plot, which means an abundance of exposition. The movie may be child-friendly but it’s hard to imagine young kids sitting still through the multiple scenes of characters explaining the latest narrative developments to Tim.
But that’s probably okay with most viewers, the adults who have been Pokémon acolytes for two decades. Detective Pikachu is more product than cinema. Like the lesser Marvel Studios films, the only thing required of it, in order to maintain the franchise, is to execute adequately. In other words, to not suck. Is the ending–to the extent that it’s coherent–a bit of a deus ex machina? Who cares? Detective Pikachu doesn’t suck, which is all that really matters to Nintendo, Warner Bros. and most of the fanbase.