It may be surprising, to put it mildly, to read a review of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu that also mentions Blade Runner. (More on this later.) But in a world where goldfish turn into dragons and baby dinosaurs walk the streets with tails aflame, stranger things have been known to happen.
For the uninitiated, Pokémon are mythical creatures of varying types that each have special abilities. (Ask your local 10-year-old to list a few of the many species and their powers.) Working with human trainers, they battle one another for supremacy by using their powers to attack opponents. The phenomenon started in the 1990s with video games, evolving into a cartoon series, a card game and eventually the ever-present cultural juggernaut it is today. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, the first live-action/animated entry into the canon, is only the latest fuel to keep the fire burning — and the money flowing.
Detective Pikachu takes the mostly cuddly creatures out of the ring and puts them on the streets of a place called Ryme City, where Pokémon and people live together in relative harmony. The story starts outside the city limits, with Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a 22-year-old insurance adjuster who has given up his dream of becoming a champion Pokémon trainer.
After the death of his father in a mysterious accident, Tim heads to Ryme City to set his dad’s affairs in order, only to discover an amnesiac Pokémon lurking in his father’s office: It’s the yellow, rodent-like critter known as Pikachu. Though Pokémon can normally only articulate variations of their own names — e.g., pika pika, delivered here by the original voice of the cartoon Pikachu, Ikue Otani — this particular specimen (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) can talk. He convinces Tim to try to get to the bottom of his father’s death.
Here’s where Blade Runner comes in.
Just as Ridley Scott created a film-noir vision of the future — all neon lights and crowded streets — director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) has rendered a dizzyingly complex and visually dazzling Ryme City. Detective Pikachu embraces other noir tropes as well, down to the film’s snappy dialogue and trenchcoat-clad femme (not quite) fatale: a BuzzFeed-style journalist (Kathryn Newton) who compiles Pokémon listicles, yet aspires to bigger things.
It’s a clever kind of world-building. The film’s Pokémon — all of whom are CGI — look so real you’ll want to reach out and cuddle them, especially Pikachu. That verisimilitude makes Detective Pikachu feel like more than a kids’ movie, extending its appeal to nostalgic adults who may remember the Pokémon-card-filled binders of their own childhoods.
The screenplay, however, isn’t terribly innovative — you’ll see some twists coming — but Smith makes for a compelling straight man to Reynolds’s caffeine-obsessed Pikachu, who’s thrilled to find a human who can understand him. Reynolds, known for the Deadpool movies, jettisons that character’s foul mouth in this PG-rated outing, yet he brings a similar blunt-spoken charm to this sweet-at-the-center role.
If you’re a stranger to the world of Pokémon, you’ll probably miss dozens of Easter eggs. It’s handy to have a 10-year-old at your side, whispering such insights as: “Psyduck can see into the future” and “That’s the original battle music.”
Is Detective Pikachu a movie for everyone? Hardly. But it’s way better than it should be. It seems that when you take a little yellow creature with a heart of gold and turn him into a soft-boiled detective, something special is in the cards.