As neither a child of the ’90s, a current child, or a person who has ever played Pokemon, I am not the target audience for Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, a kid-focused, live-action PG adventure that assumes viewers are already familiar with Pokemon lore and have no unresolved questions. If you’re unclear on the relationship between Pokemon and their “trainers” (really more of a pet-and-master thing, and sometimes a cockfighter-and-owner thing), or how the “pocket monsters” coexist with humans, or what any of the rules are in this cockamamie world, well, there’s probably a wiki you could read.
Pokemon are a variety of woodland creatures that have different special powers and are friendly to humans. Nearly all people have a Pokemon “partner,” to the extent that if you don’t have one, people think you’re weird, like when someone doesn’t have a cellphone. That’s the case with our hero, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a lad of about 20 who trained Pokemon as a kid but stopped when his mother died and his father grew distant. Now his dad, a police detective, has been killed in action, so Tim travels to the metropolis of Ryme City — basically a mildly Japanese London where humans and Pokemon live side-by-side — to settle his affairs.
There he meets his father’s Pokemon partner, Pikachu, who speaks in Ryan Reynolds’ voice. Pikachu is shocked that Tim can understand him — usually, a Pokemon’s babbling sounds to human ears like it’s repeating its own name (“Pika pika pika!”). Pikachu was there when Tim’s dad supposedly died, but he has amnesia (“a bad case of the forgetsies”) and can’t recall what happened next. But he reasons that if he’s still alive, Tim’s dad must be, too, and they set out to solve the mystery together. Also involved is a teen reporter named Lucy (Kathryn Newton) who knew Tim’s dad was working on a huge case and delivers all of her lines with the cheesy gusto of the main girl’s kooky best friend on a Disney Channel sitcom.
With its detective-noir plot and casual interactions between homo sapiens and cartoon characters, it’s strikingly reminiscent of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. I gather it has the same kind of inside references, too, assuming that you already know (for example) who Psyduck, Lickitung, Aipom, Snubbull, and Cubone are and what powers they have. If you don’t, it’s probably a bit like watching Roger Rabbit without ever having seen a Looney Tunes or Disney cartoon.
Weirdly, despite the odd-couple premise and despite casting Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu, the film is not primarily a comedy. Reynolds gets a few of his trademark meta-snarky lines in, there’s some humor in Tim being the only one who can understand Pikachu, and I laughed quite a bit at a scene with a mime Pokemon. But director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps) mostly keeps a straightforward tone, going through the steps of unraveling the mystery (which involves a media tycoon played by Bill Nighy) and exploring the movie’s various daddy issues. The plot is insane, yet somehow also rudimentary, even formulaic. If you thought the film might treat Pokemon mythology irreverently, think again. It’s the faithful, franchise-building kind of adaptation, not the post-modern, self-referential kind. I’d have enjoyed the latter version better, but like I said, this wasn’t made for me.