POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU. Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy. Directed by Rob Letterman. 104 minutes. Rated PG (Mild themes and fantasy violence, some scenes may scare younger children).
How does one go about adapting Pokémon? A contraction of “pocket monsters”, this majorly successful trading card, video game and animated television and film property comprises thousands of hours’ worth of gameplay and lore, in which its characters collect, befriend, train and battle a menagerie of wildly imagined creatures. Any attempt to smash this complexity into a feature film would likely be impossibly dense and mystifying, reserved for only the most zealous and well-read fans. The best thing then about ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ is the streamlined story that it wisely chooses to tell, one pulled from the reasonably linear 2016 game, ‘Detective Pikachu’. By focusing on a handful of characters with a mystery to solve, the screenplay can just drop audiences cold into the world of Pokémon, generating and maintaining interest with the whodunnit elements while methodically introducing parts of the Pokémon world as the story requires. This way, your enjoyment of the film doesn’t rely on you having an in-depth knowledge of its source material. It certainly helps (there are plenty of jokes and Easter eggs for the diehards), but it’s not a requirement for entry. It’s ultimately a good movie rather than a great one, but it manages to appeal to both Pokémon nuts and novices alike. Given that this is often the toughest hurdle when it comes to making video game adaptations, we can probably say that Detective Pikachu has cracked the case!
Our hero is Tim (Justice Smith), a young man working for a rural insurance agency. Despite living in a world filled with Pokémon, Tim has no interest in them, a complex fuelled by his touchy relationship with his father, Harry. After Tim’s mother died, Harry moved to Ryme City, a utopia where humans and Pokémon live and work side by side, to work in their police force. Feeling like his father abandoned him in favour of protecting the Pokémon of Ryme City, Tim discarded his childhood love of Pokémon and his aspirations of being a professional trainer. He hasn’t visited Harry in years, and when he gets a call informing him of his father’s death in a car accident, it looks like he’ll never get the chance again. His father’s lieutenant, Detective Hideo Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), summons Tim to Ryme City to handle his father’s estate. There is clearly a fair whack of backstory that needs to be conveyed, and though these early scenes are often painfully expository, the five credited screenwriters get to the first act turning point with admirably brisk intent.
While clearing out his father’s apartment, Tim is surprised by the appearance of a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), one wearing his late father’s deerstalker hat no less! This Pokémon – a football-sized puff of bright yellow fur with cherry-red cheeks, long pointed ears and a lightning bolt-shaped tail capable of producing electric shocks (if only he could remember how) – was previously his father’s partner and the duo are shocked to realise that Tim is the only person that can hear Pikachu’s voice (everyone else just hears a high-pitched “pika pika!” whenever he speaks). Pikachu is mysteriously suffering from amnesia, but he explains to Tim his hunch that there is more to Harry’s death than a mere accident. Tim and Pikachu resolve to team up and solve the case, eventually joined in their quest by budding journo Lucy (Kathryn Newton).
The below-the-line work on the film is generally good, especially Henry Jackman’s cool, electronically influenced score, which invokes the Pokémon themes of old, simple but catchy tunes constrained by the limited sonic range of early Gameboy consoles. Nigel Phelp’s production design is fairly slick and John Mathieson’s cinematography initially looks great – Tim’s first foray into Ryme City could best be described as neon-noir – though it gets a little flatter and less stylish as the plot progresses. The visual effects are mixed; Pikachu looks great 90% of the time, but the other Pokémon are a little more hit and miss, often appearing very glossy and detached from their physical environment. This is just a side effect of the sheer amount of CGI required by the movie, with countless frames simply stuffed with Pokémon (just about every human character has a Pokémon partner, which add up rapidly).
It’s this same glut of CGI that deals Justice Smith is an especially difficult hand, compounding the pressure that the screenplay already places on him. Tim spends the first act as a total sadsack (hardly your ideal lead character is a bright and colourful family movie) and many of his scenes have him acting across from little more than a CG-rendered Pikachu. However, it’s his work (as well as Ryan Reynold’s charming, playful voice performance) that really sells the titular character. Smith is miraculously better across from his Pokémon scene partners than his human ones, particularly Pikachu, more genuine and – pardon the pun – animated. This might say more about his chemistry with his flesh and blood co-stars though, which ranges from so-so with Kathryn Newton to non-existent with the underused Ken Watanabe. The film also asks a lot of Newton, the film’s second human lead, whose Lucy is a weird blend of cartoonish pluck and female empowerment, and she can’t quite thread the needle. In the other supporting roles, Bill Nighy is wasted in the underwritten role of Howard Clifford, the wheelchair-bound businessman and founder of Ryme City, although Chris Geere is magnificently slimy as his son and heir apparent, Roger. Audiences should be able to see some of the film’s twists coming (it’s hardly a spoiler to say that Roger’s intentions aren’t totally aligned with his father’s), but there are others that are genuinely and pleasurably surprising.
Given how disastrously many expected a live action Pokémon movie to turn out, ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ is a nice surprise. Director Rob Letterman pulls off the same trick that he did with his ‘Goosebumps’ adaptation, building a breezily entertaining take on a fan favourite property around a likeable star, with Reynolds slotting into the Jack Black position of the big name with four-quadrant appeal. It was a difficult trick that he managed with ‘Goosebumps’, walking the line between nostalgia and relevance, and Pokémon represents an equally difficult proposition on paper with its strangeness and complexity. Letterman was up to the task though, making ‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ a solid bit of family entertainment that will appeal doubly to Pokémon fans.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out May 9.