Is it possible to be adorable, wisecrackingly funny and heartfelt all at once?
It is if you’re Pikachu and you are the titular star of your own film in which a great mystery is solved, tables are turned, and estranged connections re-established, all against some fairly-impressive worldbuilding.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu, based on the long-running gaming and anime series from the Japanese consortium made up of Nintendo, Game Freak, and Creatures, manages to be far more substantial and heartfelt that you might be expecting, a blockbuster with a furry yellow heart that delivers some fairly serious emotional punches in amongst its gungho frothy adventuring.
Set in an idealised Blade Runner-meets-conurbation known as Ryme City, where Pokémon, traditionally captured and trained to battle for sport by their trainers, and humans live in bucolic harmony, the film deftly suggests a world where old traditions have been put aside in favour of new and improved ones, inspired by philanthropist Howard Clfford who credits the multidinous varieties of Pokémon with rescuing him, body and soul.
But as with everything, even delightfully-realised urban fantasy settings, things are not quite what they seem, nor as glossily-perfect as they appear, something that Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) discovers when he comes to Ryme City to follow-up on some terrible news about his estranged policeman father Harry who has apparently died in a fiery crash off a bridge.
We say “apparently” because no one has found a body, and while an ancient and extremely-powerful Pokémon known as Mewtwo was seen to be pursuing him at the time he plunged off a very high bridge, the sudden appearance of his partner Pikachu at Harry’s apartment when Tim is there mourning what he’s lost – not so much a present relationship as the lost hope for one – suggests that the official story might not quite stack up.
Tim is dubious, of course, and awash in the pain of regret and longing for a father he long ago ceased to have any meaningful contact with, he gives Pikachu, who he can understand when no one else can (all other mere mortals here is a cutesy, high-pitched “Pika! Pika!”) short shrift, all but asking him to go away and never come back.
Pikachu, who is all coffee addiction, hyperactivity and ridiculously funny, pitch-perfect comic timing, is giving up easily, partly because he seems to be tenacious like that, but also because he really has nowhere else to go, his memory wiped in the accident with no imminent sign of a return.
It’s a traditional odd couple, and while we’ve seen the dynamic a thousand times before, Reynolds as Pikachu gives the exchanges between the two some whippet-smart hilarity, all witty asides, and humourous asides that nicely counterbalance Tim’s regretful gloom.
This may sound a little too heavy for what many will assume is a bright and breezy blockbuster based on a well-established franchise, but it works, and works very well, with Pikachu emerging as a distinctively-unique character who casually drops oneliner after oneliner, the way the rest of pick up fresh cups of coffee (something, as already noted, that’s also inordinately fond of).
It helps add some pizzazz and fun to a film that is visually lush and colourfully-bright, but narratively intense in a way that absolutely works in way you will not see coming.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is very much a film that gloriously suberts expectations, both of what a blockbuster based on a gaming console franchise should look and feel like, and if you’re a long time Pokémon fan, which alas this reviewer, born three decades before the arrival of Pikachu et al in 1995, is not, what a Pokémon tale should be.
That’s not to say it’s a complete departure; far from, in fact.
Indeed, if you grew up with Pokémon, you will recognise the many touchstones and nods to the franchise, including the many and varied profusion of characters sprinkled throughout – the budding reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton) who helps Tim investigate why Ryme City, apart from being down one detective, is also awash in Pokémon-enraging drugs, has a Psyduck while Bulbasaur roam the countryside near the city – the name of the city itself, and the many references to Poké Balls and Pokémon trainers.
The Pokémon themselves, of which there are many – Charmander anyone? How about Gigglypuffs or Squirtles? – are beautifully-realised, their insertion into the live action backgrounds and the lives of their devoted human partners seamless, which goes a long way to making the world they inhabit look every bit as realistic as our own, despite its fantastical premise.
The genious of Pokémon Detective Pikachu is that it manages to keep both devotees and newbies happy, delivering up a loving homage to the much-loved, nostalgia-draped franchise without once alientating people who have never advanced the yellow cuteness of Pikachu, assuming they have heard of him at all.
It’s a tough balancing act to pull off but the film manages it with aplomb, holding these competing demands in place so well while giving us characters we care deeply about, that it’s easy to overlook the functional cliched nature of the plot.
The whole estranged dad and son, discovering who you really are, solving a mystery and facing down evil narrative is hardly groundbreaking but Pokémon Detective Pikachu gets away it with smartly because it’s inventive with its use of tropes and cliches, and because it never neglects to inject real, heartfelt humanity, yes even for Pokémon who are more caring than their two-legged counterparts at times, into its story.
Its big, brash and larger than life like any blockbuster but it never soulless or without heart, a remarkable achievement in an age where tentpole epics look spectacular but often lack real substance or emotional resonance.
You may solely be expecting wit and whimsy, fabulous visuals and some good belly laughs courtesy of Reynolds in fine G-rated Deadpool-ian form, but what Pokémon Detective Pikachu delivers up too is an affecting storyline of loss and restitution, good versus evil (no prizes for guessing which side wins) and hope beating despair which means you will get your Snubbulls and Lickitungs (and an hilarious interrogation with Mr. Mime) but also a generously-unexpected serving of the kind of humanity affirms that you can have your Pokémon and emotionally relate to them too.
Oh, and if you think true marketing genius is moribund when it comes to films, think again. This video, released by among others, star Ryan Reynolds himself, is brilliant in its conception and delivery …