Pokémon: Detective Pikachu movie review: destined to be Legendary

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Pokémon Detective Pikachu green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Designed to cash in on the popular mobile game, this kiddie noir nevertheless sparkles with charming originality. Gentle enough for tykes but with satirical bite for grownups, too. Downright adorable.
I’m “biast” (pro): play Pokémon Go occasionally
I’m “biast” (con): not the biggest fan of Ryan Reynolds
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

Well, this is a delightful surprise. Rarely — perhaps never? — has a movie so clearly designed to cash in on the popularity of another corporately spawned intellectual property turned out so… charming. So genuinely sweet. Downright adorable, even. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a very obvious response to the enormous popularity of the Pokémon Go augmented-reality smartphone game, which is itself only a tiny part of the biggest media franchise on the planet, and one of the more sprawling, encompassing across its nearly 25 years comic books, trading-card and video games, TV cartoons, and almost two dozen animated movies. And yet, by some miracle of movie magic, Detective Pikachu sparkles with originality, fresh humor, and a natural, organic fantasy. Perhaps the fact that this is the first live-action Pokémon anything had something to do with it, forced everyone involved to bring their A games. However it happened, it is very welcome indeed.

And so we have a truly lovely world where Pokémon — friendly, cute “pocket monsters,” though almost all over them are considerably larger than pocket-sized — and humans live in companionable harmony in Ryme City. In the rest of the world, humans capture and train Pokémon (the term is both singular and plural, doncha know) to battle other Pokémon for everyone’s amusement, perhaps even for that of the Pokémon themselves, since they seem pretty impervious to mortal damage. But here in Ryme City, battling is outlawed and everyone has a Pokémon partner. It’s a step above a human-pet relationship, partly because the Pokémon seem more intelligent and more sentient than even a dog or a parrot. It’s almost like — nerd alert! — His Dark Materials, in which all humans are deeply connected to their personal “daemons.”

Pokémon Detective Pikachu
So much cute in this totally adorable movie!

Thankfully, Detective Pikachu lacks the child kidnapping and torture and other horrors of His Dark Materials. And in fact, the absence of Pokémon battling here as a good, necessary, and essential part of the experience may well be a reaction to some criticisms of Pokémon Go, that it promotes animal cruelty in its focus on capturing, training, and battling the cute little monsters. If there’s anything daring or radical here, it might be in how Detective Pikachu doesn’t have a lot of time for what might be considered the central conceit of this franchise — its cartoonish but undeniable violence — and you barely even seem to notice.

Not that Detective Pikachu ignores the game that is its reason for being, either. The extremely cool Ryme City is an alt-London that almost seems like a live-action take on the augmented reality of Pokémon Go, which overlays its game environment on the actual park or sidewalk where you’re playing. Here, soaring make-believe skyscrapers sit nicely among an iconic real-world skyline, and strange wondrous beasties wander streets plied by red double-decker buses. This is also a city that echoes the Japanese roots of Pokémon, too, neon-soaked and oft-navigated via enchanting alleyways dotted with food stalls hawking noodles eaten with chopsticks. Imagine if Blade Runner wasn’t a dystopia, and you’re almost there.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu
This totally cute movie is a teensy bit scary, very occasionally.

Of course, not everything is hunky-dory in Ryme City! Detective Pikachu ventures into downright kiddie-noir territory with the tale it has to tell. Intrigue strikes when human Tim’s (Justice Smith [Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Every Day], no relation to Will) dad, a Ryme City PD cop, goes missing, so Tim teams up with Dad’s Pokémon partner, a fuzzy yellow Pikachu (the voice of Ryan Reynolds [Deadpool 2, The Hitman’s Bodyguard], reining way in his usual smarm), in order to find his father. The task of Tim and the Pikachu — who is not officially a detective, you understand, but does seem to enjoy sporting a Sherlock Holmes–ian deerstalker cap — is made somewhat easier by the strange fact that Tim and the Pikachu can talk to and understand each other, which is not usually the case with humans and Pokémon.

(Did I say there were no horrors here? Here’s a teeny one: Should we be disturbed by the fact that the Pokémon don’t seem to have individual names? Wouldn’t humans name them, even if they aren’t able to communicate with the Pokémon to learn if the little monsters have their own names? I feel like something uncomfortable in the human-Pokémon relationship may be just barely hinted at here. I would not mind at all a sequel exploring this.)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu
But mostly this is a lot of wonderful cute overload.

The ensuing mystery is gentle enough for little’uns but with enough satirical bite for imaginative grownups to appreciate, too, much of that in the form of a huge corporation — headed up by Bill Nighy’s (The Bookshop, Their Finest) “Howard Clifford” in full-on Bill Nighy form — that built Ryme City and is deeply dedicated to human-Pokémon cooperation rather than conflict. No spoilers, but there is some sly play here about humanity’s use and abuse of the natural world, a green theme that is very subtle but one that I think may impact deeply, in the most positive way possible, the children this is primarily aimed at.

It’s difficult to speculate here, particularly as I cannot fail to see this movie from my own adult perspective, even “worse” as someone who was too old to be a kid when Pokémon was new in the 1990s and started to make its enormous presence felt. But I got a thrill of movie-movie immersion and fanciful think-bombing from Detective Pikachu, the kind that sucks you up into its world and plants visionary seeds that will grow slowly for years, which makes me suspect that many small children today will look back at this movie as one of the seminal cinematic experiences of their childhoods, perhaps one that made them fall in love with movies.

That remains to be seen. For now, it all works even if you don’t know the first thing about Pokémon. As Detective Pikachu himself might say, you will feel Detective Pikachu in your jellies.

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