Here’s a fun fact: Pokémon is the highest-grossing franchise of all time. Ahead of Star Wars. Ahead of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ahead of Harry Potter. All told, the Japanese cultural juggernaut, which can accurately be described as ‘competitive dog-fighting, but they like it’, is worth almost $60 billion. And as such, the real mystery in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is less its central ‘missing persons’ case – which is predictable to the point of rote – and more how it took anyone so damn long to make a live-action feature film out of the pocket monsters which all but ruled the playgrounds of 1999.
When his father, detective Harry Goodman, is presumed dead following a mysterious car crash, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) must team-up with his father’s inexplicably-talkative partner Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, killing it) to unravel a mystery which will shake the very foundations of the Pokémon world.
The core conceit of that world, however, is going to be the primary barrier of entry to many viewers; if you can’t tell your Bulbasaurs from your Charmanders, then Detective Pikachu simply isn’t for you, and has no interest in wasting a single second of its breezy one-hour forty-four-minute runtime in catching you up. And given the global ubiquity of the brand, it’s genuinely hard to fault screenwriters Dan Hernandez (1600 Penn), Benji Samit (The Tick), and Rob Letterman (Shark Tale, also directing) for pitching their tent firmly in the plot marked ‘fandom’.
In terms of human protagonists, Smith’s Tim is a pretty by-the-numbers audience POV, with a few shimmering moments of heart to tie the proceedings together. Kathryn Newton’s less endearing, however, as wannabe-reporter and love-interest Lucy Stevens; she’s aiming for comedic and lands closer to parody, at least in her initial scenes, before blessedly mellowing out as the film goes on.
But this is the Ryan Reynolds show, and if the words ‘wholesome Deadpool’ don’t make you at least a little bit happy, then there isn’t much else for you here. Reynolds absolutely nails the precise, goofy, giddy charm the flick requires, and is almost worth the price of admission for some of his obvious ad-libs alone. The character model is utterly precious (a towering achievement in toyetic marketability) and makes for an unabashed cinematic delight when combined with Reynolds’ deliberately-subversive vocal talents and acerbic wit.
Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe show up to collect paycheques, and add the kind of gravitas only actors of their age, skill, and caliber can bring to the table. The former is firmly in Underworld territory, whilst the latter reprises his ‘walking frown’ routine from Gareth Edward’s Godzilla.
With all that said, however, the film still just works. Whilst the CG for the Pokémon rarely even approaches photo-real, Letterman shoots the critters with a tangible weight that makes one’s desire to believe more than enough to carry the discrepancy, especially for the franchise-obsessives who’ll no doubt pour over screen grabs of the crowd sequences for months after the film’s home release.
X-Men: First Class composer Henry Jackman does a serviceable job with the picture’s score, with plenty of franchise nods for die-hards, and enough whimsy and magic to service everyone else. And whilst Rob Letterman’s only other notable live-action feature was the atrocious Jack Black vehicle Gulliver’s Travels, he acquits himself well here; there’s a workmanship to his directorial style that occasionally tips into outright spectacle, and betrays a cannier eye than perhaps other projects have demonstrated. Letterman deftly balances the film’s lopsided charm and comedic sensibilities with a winning sincerity that just about hand-waves any quibbles of seesawing tone. There’s a heartfelt core of child-like joy here that sidesteps the clichéd plot and paper-thin characters.
In all honesty, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu shares a lot in common with its titular electric mouse; it’s a very cute, very silly, very funny bundle of fluff, that kids and Pokémon fans are gonna go absolutely nuts for. For everyone else? Maybe just go and see Endgame again.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu releases in UK cinemas on the 10th of May, rated PG.
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