The Pokémon franchise, which was birthed in the late nineties as a card game with supplemental video games, has remained incredibly ubiquitous in pop-culture. Pokémon are creatures that can be captured and trained for battle against other Pokémon as sport, with large championships being held regularly across the Poké-globe. Essentially, it is cock fighting but with cuter creatures who are somehow complicit in this system of slavery. The late-nineties and early aughts were riddled with an absurd amount of monster-battle properties, such as Yuh-Gi-Oh, Beyblade, and Digimon, but only Pokémon – likely due to all of its 800+ creatures being absolutely adorable – has held attention in the consciousness of the American youth.
The 1997 Pokémon anime series placed certain characters on the expansive Mount Rushmore of iconic Pokémon creatures (Bulbasaur, Charizard, and Squirtle come to mind). But the breakout star of the series was certainly Pikachu, an adorable yellow rat-like Pokémon with the ability to conjure electricity and use it for attack. Pikachu’s cuteness and his placement as the central Pokémon of the series made him the face of the franchise, in a way. All Pokémon have some level of iconography, but Pikachu is certainly the most recognizable among the general public.
What the general public does not recognize is the Pikachu we are given in the first live-action feature of the franchise, Detective Pikachu. Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) is a manic, caffeine-addicted, wisecracking fur-ball who is dead-set on finding his former partner Harry Goodman – whose death, Pikachu believes, has been faked. Pikachu teams up with Harry’s reluctant son Tim (Justice Smith) to crack the case after learning that Tim can understand him; all other Pokémon can say only their names, but Harry alone can understand in English what Pikachu is trying to say. Files are opened, coffee is guzzled, and conspiratorial yarn boards are built by our duo as they delve through the seedy underbelly of Ryme City to uncover the whereabouts of Harry.
Detective Pikachu‘s central mystery is quite compelling, and could serve as a strong introduction to noir film tropes for many of the children watching it. Pikachu and Tim uncover mass corruption in Ryme City’s government by picking up clues from leads in locations common to noir films, such as seaport docks, underground fighting clubs (involving Pokémon in this case), and scientific testing labs. They are aided in their effort by news intern Lucy Stevens (Katherine Newton), who has picked up the case work the Harry left in the wake of his death and is anxious to use the story to springboard into a career as a hardboiled journalist.
Placing the generally melancholy elements of noir film stories in a children’s film should not work, but director Rob Letterman treats the story beats with such levity that it hardly ever seems incongruous. He blends noir-storytelling with light-hearted children’s fare not only through the character of Pikachu, who is essentially a PG-rated Deadpool, but through the production design and cinematography. The night scenes in Ryme City are dark and foggy, but the light sources present in the city are largely neon pinks and blues, making for a city that looks like a beautifully elaborate laser tag arena. No film in 2019 so far has been as gorgeously composed as Detective Pikachu¸ and its visual design serves as a means through which younger audiences can digest the contrast of mystery and merriment.
Given the noir-ish nature of the story’s premise, Detective Pikachu shoves aside much of what we understand about the Pokémon world. Ryme City’s mayor Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) has created a Zootopia-esque city where Pokémon and humans cohabitate as friends and neighbors. There are no Pokémon arenas, no Pokémon trainers, and no Pokéballs to catch the creatures with. Many Ryme City residents still own Pokémon, but they are more pets than prized fighters.
The civility of Ryme City allows the film to fit in even more Pokémon cameos than a standard battle film might. Many Pokémon are seen working civilian jobs: a Ludicolo bartends, a Machamp directs traffic, a Loudred DJs, a Pikachu detects. Director Rob Letterman furnishes Detective Pikachu with an incredible amount of creatures to show how integrated they are in society. They are still pets, technically, but pets who can pour Pikachu a cup of Joe if he needs to relieve stress.
It is a shame that the world building and story beats in the film are so strong given that the film’s biggest weak point is Detective Pikachu himself. Ryan Reynolds is a fantastic actor, but his post-Deadpool success has funneled him into a 2010s career of only being Deadpool. Pikachu’s quips feel a little bit too self-aware, and in some cases a bit too mature for a an adorable figure like Pikachu. Not that Pikachu has to be snuggly the whole movie – he is Ryme City’s greatest detective, after all – but Ryan Reynolds doing kid-friendly Deadpool does not mesh with the uncynical tone that the rest of the movie bathes in.
The character is further crippled by a truly bizarre twist in the final twenty minutes that explains why he and Tim have been able to understand each other. The twist undercuts what is so fun about the idea of a Detective Pikachu; I want to see a cuddly Pikachu acting like a hard-shelled investigator, similar to how I want to watch three stacked-up boys in a trench coat try to sneak into a R-rated movie. It is adorable to see children playing tough, and Pikachu should be doing the same. But Pikachu in the movie is so adult-like that he ends up being a distraction from the rest of the film’s more compelling Pokémon world.
The other characters’ stories more or less work. Tim wrestles with the idea of finding his father, as the two have not spoken since Tim’s mother died when he was a child. He is suffering hard from What-Could’ve-Been Syndrome. As a child he wanted to become a Pokémon trainer (the film is unclear on this, but it seems that Pokémon battles are legal in places outside of Ryme City), but he has resigned to working as an insurance agent. Pikachu brings him out of his disappointing cubicle lifestyle and makes him reconsider whether the things he used to think were impossible – training Pokémon and connecting emotionally with his father – ever actually were impossible. By the end of the film he is given hope that he can be whoever he wants to be, which is a common but strong message to distill in a film for children.
Even though its eponymous hero is a bit of a misfire, Detective Pikachu is a strong introduction to Pokémon-as-citizens world that promises much potential for future installments. If every blockbuster was made with as much attention as care for its source material as Detective Pikachu is, then perhaps the prospect of endless franchise blockbusters in Hollywood wouldn’t be so troublesome. In 2019, the year of our franchises, Detective Pikachu will likely stand out among similar features like The Lion King and Sonic The Hedgehog (ugh) as not just another soulless cash-grab, but a film that imbues its IP with a lot of heart.