Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

(2019) ** Unrated
104 min. Warner Bros. Director: Rob Letterman. Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Suki Waterhouse, Chris Geere.

/content/films/5159/1.jpgEvery movie ends up a product in the movie marketplace. After all, they don’t call it show business for nothing. But some movies are more conspicuously products than others, and part of the art of blockbuster filmmaking is to distract us from the impression that we’re watching an overblown commercial or an unartfully pandering exercise. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu brings the gigantic global video and card game/anime/comic-book franchise to the big screen in a big way, but it feels more like a sales pitch than a fully realized story.

After establishing some mystery involving an incident at a research laboratory, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu gets down to world-building by establishing a universe in which humans co-exist with Pokémon (a.k.a. “pocket monsters”). In this universe, these little beasties (which come in over 800 wildly differing varieties) start out feral and either get trapped for underground cage matches or domesticated as contented partners to humans. One Tim Goodman (a game Justice Smith), the 21-year-old son of fallen Ryme City Police detective Harry Goodman, takes the train to Ryme City to get the bad news in person.

Older viewers—if indeed any bother with the movie—will immediately recognize Ryme City as a variation on Toontown from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. As in that live-action/animation hybrid, non-humans roam more or less freely amongst humans, although nastiness plays out in the noir-ish shadows. Director Rob Letterman (Gulliver’s Travels, the animated Monsters vs. Aliens) gives the city a sunny introduction before plunging it mostly into nighttime, this futuristic pseudo-Tokyo bathed in the glow of neon signs and video screens (thank you, Blade Runner).

In his father’s apartment, Tim meets “Detective Pikachu” (Ryan Reynolds), a Pokémon whose English-speaking voice only Tim can (magically) hear. Pikachu sports big doe eyes, cherry-red cheeks, and yellow fur from his rabbit ears to his lightning-bolt-shaped tail, all topped with a deerstalker cap. A caffeine-addicted amnesiac, this pudgy lil’ cutie isn’t a whole lot of help—he can’t seem to get his powers to work—but he’s the lonely Tim’s only link to his dead father. The pair’s investigation runs afoul of a drug that turns Pokémon rabid, which leads them to the supposedly altruistic Clifford Industries, run by Roger Clifford (Chris Geere) and his visionary father Howard (Bill Nighy). Also kicking around, for the girls: a plucky reporter (Kathryn Newton) who doubles as Tim's love interest.

For a PG movie, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu turns out to be convoluted and literally dark, so it’s a toss-up how the wee-est ones will respond to it—though they’ll certainly enjoy the dynamic between the boy and his quippy Pokémon, as well as the decidedly non-photo-real CGI animation. The messy plot lurches along like a car with a bad transmission, busting out with twists having to do with secret genetic experimentation, “the most powerful Pokémon known to mankind,” and the true nature of Harry’s disappearance. All of this loosely derives from a video game called Detective Pikachu, but the plot contortions required to justify a talking Pokémon (and, thereby, dialogue) bring to mind a quadruple-jointed yogi.

Is this the Pokémon movie that fans want? I’m guessing it’ll do for most, as the “gotta catch ’em all” franchise is the Easter Egg basket that keeps on giving allusions and “cameos” (fans hearts will no doubt swell at scenes like the one that gives a hero moment to the Bulbasaur breed). With Reynolds cracking wise and a number of frantic action sequences, this looks like an effective enough franchise launcher. But the early inklings of a 1980s kid-movie vibe (think Gremlins) don’t quite deliver on their promise of straightforward fun and games—it all feels a little too much like work.

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