This could be the Pokémon franchise’s Guardians Of The Galaxy moment. Just as James Gunn’s oddball space opera gave the Marvel Cinematic Universe a shot of heartfelt world-expanding weirdness, Detective Pikachu injects fun new elements into this very familiar franchise, albeit with some mixed results.
Justice Smith leads the human cast as a surprisingly downbeat character, an insurance salesman named Tim Goodman, who is standoffish with cute critters and has made it to the cusp of adulthood without choosing a Pokémon partner. His reluctant attempt to befriend a Cubone, in the film’s opening act, provides some hearty laughs early on.
It’s easy to disagree with Tim’s stance on Pokémon, though, because this film’s vision of a creature-infested world is an absolute ruddy delight. The mix of CGI and live-action is handled really nicely, bringing to life a cityscape that’s stuffed with loveable pocket monsters who never feel fake or out of place. In one particularly heart-swelling throwaway moment, a hug-worthy Snorlax sleeps in the road, blocking traffic, while a stern-looking Machamp directs traffic around it. This is a world that even hardened cynics would love to jump into and assimilate with. Where do we sign up for a real Pokémon to take home?
Tim’s journey into the Poké-stuffed metropolis of Ryme City sends him down a path of mystery, which puts him on the radar of an unpaid media intern with an eye for a scoop (Kathryn Newton putting in a very funny turn as Lucy) and the eponymous wisecracking Pikachu that’s voiced by Ryan Reynolds (who brings laughs and heart, and thankfully doesn’t go ‘full Deadpool’ with it.)
The film sets up a couple of intriguing plotlines at this point (including the fact that Tim can understand what Pikachu is saying), before delving into a film noir parody of sorts. Pikachu chugs down countless cups of coffee while rummaging around for leads, and Tim takes part in a brilliant interrogation/piece of performance art to get some information from a reluctant Mr Mime. Lucy, meanwhile, shows chuckle-inducing frustration as a talented journo who’s stuck writing listicles that rank cute Pokémon. (“Spoiler alert: they’re all cute! What’s the point?!”)
Hanging out in this world is a pleasure, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in seeing which characters are paired up with which Pokémon. Ken Watanabe’s welcoming detective character, for instance, is paired up with a seriously stern Snubull with a rarely-seen softer side. There are Easter Eggs and nods for fans of the games, but even if you only have a basic understanding of what a Pokémon is, you’ll probably find something to smile about, especially in the first two thirds of the movie.
It’s a genuinely weird and often wonderful world that director Rob Letterman has overseen the creation of, but Detective Pikachu does come off the rails as it careens at top speed into its third act. Whereas Guardians Of The Galaxy limited itself to a handful of barmy ideas (talking tree and racoon) and focused on developing characters and stories that you care about, Detective Pikachu just keeps throwing in daft new concepts until you’ve lost track of what’s going on or why.
There are numerous different types of mumbo-jumbo sci-fi science in the film, a story which piles twists on top of twists, heaps of holograms that try to explain things, a distracting appearance from a British pop star, and a big action-movie showdown at the end that doesn’t really match the low-key film noir antics that came before. It’s a messy film, and one that you could easily pick apart, but its heart is definitely in the right place.
The unrelenting likeability of Pikachu, Lucy and the gradually-dethawing Tim do enough to keep you engaged, thankfully, and it’s also fun seeing Bill Nighy chew scenery and spew dialogue that he probably didn’t have any understanding of. This is a cast with plentiful chemistry, and their Pokémon partners help to splice in moments of levity.
Even amongst the third-act mayhem, this world is realised in eye-pleasing fashion, constantly reminding you of all the great Pokémon designs we’ve seen over the years and how adorable they can be as living, breathing characters. Even Lucy’s annoying Psyduck is loveable and relatable.
We’d happily return to Ryme City for a sequel, which is handy, because there’s already one in development. And we’d love to see some more off-the-wall expansions of the Pokémon brand. This first Detective Pikachu film certainly has its flaws, but it’s full of fun, easy to enjoy and unashamedly silly. Isn’t that exactly what Pokémon should be?
Detective Pikachu reaches UK cinemas on 10 May.