- Pokémon: Detective Pikachu
- Directed by Rob Letterman
- Written by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman and Derek Connolly
- Starring Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith and Bill Nighy
- Classification: PG; 104 minutes
Nintendo’s first and, until this week, last foray into the use of its characters in live-action movies was 1993′s downright bizarre Super Mario Bros., a film so legendarily bad that it scared the Japanese game giant away from the live-action movie business for more than a quarter century. So you would expect that after taking a 26-year breather, Nintendo would do something more straightforward with its return to the big screen. Five minutes of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu will dissuade you from that notion.
Detective Pikachu is unrelentingly weird. Thankfully, unlike Mario Bros., it’s also breezily watchable, if slightly insubstantial beyond its strangeness. The closest touchstone to the new film is 1988′s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where a live-action version of L.A. played host to a regular-looking Bob Hoskins (years before his Mario Bros. performance) as well as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. Here, Justice Smith replaces Hoskins, and a computer-generated Pikachu and hundreds of other Pokémon replace the 2-D animated 'toons.
Admittedly, Detective Pikachu doesn’t use the tension between the normal and the absurd to the same allegorical ends as Roger Rabbit, instead playing this occasionally grim world where humans live alongside what look like living plush stuffies in a more straightforward way – although this tact actually increases how strange the entire thing feels, as the absurdity of the juxtaposition isn’t being used toward any specific purpose. Instead, the audience is being asked to just roll with the idea that it’s seeing a world first presented as a four-colour Game Boy game translated into live action without compromise. There is even one point where Smith calls out – with an absolute straight face – possible attack moves to Pikachu as if they’re being selected from a drop-down menu. It’s not played in a postmodern way, as if the characters know that they’re in a video game, but like the world they live in just runs by those video-game rules.
There are a few changes from the source material – the movie de-emphasizes (though does not completely erase) the fact that the games are basically an abstracted form of virtual dog fighting with fantasy animals. But it’s frankly pretty audacious how straight director Rob Letterman plays the concept of a normal-looking Smith acting against what can only be described as an extremely cute living carnival-prize voiced by Ryan Reynolds.
Part of this is because Smith and Reynolds offer textured and grounded performances that show an obvious chemistry with each other during the admittedly broad character and plot beats they share. It’s a testament to how well they play off of each other that when their onscreen relationship gets convoluted by events near the end of the story the entire movie still sort of works.
Contrasting the two core performances, the rest of the cast sometimes feels as if they exist in a slightly different film, playing their characters at various levels of heightened. Yes, Bill Nighy is hamming it up more than the giant electric rodent. And he’s an electric rodent that looks great: There are scenes later in the movie where Pikachu seems uncannily like a child’s plush toy that’s been dragged through the dirt a few too many times. In general, the designs often look absurd, but rarely look creepy, which is a line the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog demonstrates is easy to cross.
Much like the performances, the plot also seems to flit between being something darker and something more cartoon-like. The film begins with an apparent murder, and for most of the runtime, Smith’s character is dealing with various personal traumas. But as the movie goes along, events lean more toward plotting directly out of a children’s cartoon – which, of course, is fine since children are the primary audience. But they aren’t the only audience, which is likely a reason why different aspects of the movie seem to play with different tones and wavelengths.
There are hundreds of millions of people who have played a traditional Pokemon game since the first one was released in Japan in 1996, more still have watched the cartoon (which has been running continuously since 1997), and close to half a billion people have fired up the Pokemon Go mobile game. It’s a broad audience that includes nine-year-old girls, 75-year-old grandfathers and everyone in between across the globe. Despite having to hit all of those groups of fans, the movie mostly succeeds at being entertaining, and has the grace to end at just about the point when the joy over the absurdity of its existence is wearing off.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu opens May 10