by Jeremy Clarke.
A young man is partnered with a Pikachu who has lost his memory and speaks English with the voice of actor Ryan Reynolds. Together, they investigate the mystery of the young man’s missing detective father. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the latest big-screen addition to Japan’s hugely successful, worldwide Pokémon franchise and it delivers Pikachu as you’ve never seen him before. Indeed, it delivers the world of Pokémon as you’ve never seen it before.
At night, in a laboratory miles from anywhere, Mewtwo is being held in large water tanks for the purposes of experimentation (apparently Pokémon can breathe underwater). Mewtwo escapes in a flurry of pyrotechnics to pursue a fleeing car, culminating in a blast which sends the speeding automobile cartwheeling over the edge of a bridge.
Learning of his estranged father’s disappearance, twenty-one year old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) visits the former’s offices in Ryme City. This metropolis is unique in the Pokémon world: a place where humans and Pokémon can live together in harmony. This symbiotic environment is the brainchild of benevolent billionaire and Clifford Enterprises CEO Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy). All is not well within the company, however, as Clifford faces opposition in everything he does from his very differently-minded President and son, Roger (Chris Geere).
Tim abandoned his childhood dream of becoming a Pokémon trainer, and currently works in insurance. As illustrated by an abortive attempt when a friend sets him up to catch a Cubone, he has no Pokémon of his own. On the train to Ryme City he encounters a Lickitung and gets licked by its tongue which is twice the length of its body. It quickly becomes apparent that most people on the train or in Ryme City itself are partnered with their own individual Pokémon, making Tim something of a fish out of water.
His father’s office presents no immediate answer as to the departed detective’s fate but it does unite Tim with his father’s Pokémon, a Pikachu. Most Pokémon vocabulary is limited to the creatures saying their own names or variations of their names – “Pika Pika” in the case of Pikachu – even though as we’re told these utterances can encompass vast ranges of expression and subject matter. But this Pikachu is different. Tim can hear and understand him speak English (in Ryan Reynolds’ voice) and reciprocally Pikachu can hear and understand Tim. While they can talk to one another, they’re the only human and Pokémon who can.
This leads into a plot involving a purple gas that turns friendly Pokémon into angry adversaries, a young lady cub reporter Lucy Stevens (Katherine Newton) partnered with a Psyduck and Tim’s dad’s old police boss Lieutenant Hide Yoshida (Ken Watanabe). There are also lots of incredibly realised Pokémon, many of them in blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos, which will turn the film in to a freeze-frame buff’s delight on home video.
The new live action Warner Bros. movie is consistent with the multiple worlds of Pokémon games, anime and other media. Technically, it’s a movie adaptation of the Pokémon Detective Pikachu game that came out first in Japan in 2016. At the same time the live-action makeover turns the property into something completely different. The two characters with the most screen time are Tim and Pikachu and while there’s nothing remarkable about seeing an actor performing in front of a camera, there is something extraordinary about absolutely believing you’re watching a real life, breathing, furry yellow Pikachu. I know it’s just a bunch of clever visual effects but while I’m watching I’m convinced I’m actually seeing a Pikachu for real on-screen. The living, breathing character utterly transcends the complex visual and other film-making techniques used to bring him to life so convincingly here.
Much of this is down to the physical interaction between actor Justice Smith and the effects / puppetry / CGI. Credit must clearly also go to Ryan Reynolds for his superb voice-over work. You feel like you’re watching something ground-breaking, much like that other Warner Bros. movie innovation Who Framed Roger Rabbit when it first came out in 1988. Back then, we were watching actors interacting with two-and-a-half-dimensional animated cartoons of the Hollywood/American variety. Now we are watching actors interacting with simply, if strikingly, designed anime creatures, recast as physical, living, breathing fantastical animals. The transformation from the familiar anime creature characters of yore into the movie’s live-action versions is nothing less than stunning.
If the believability of Pikachu as a living, breathing character and the bonding between him and his human buddy prove to be the film’s primary assets, with the live action/effects realisations of numerous Pokémon a close second, there are plenty of other good reasons to see it. Ryme City is a bustling urban environment, shown mostly in daylight – a design amalgam of London where much of the film was made, New York and Tokyo. The City of London’s ‘Cheesegrater’ building, a.k.a. 122 Leadenhall, features prominently in the daytime scenes. Eye-catching neon signs notwithstanding, Ryme City looks distinctly less friendly at night. Interiors of offices and bars have a gloomier, more noir-ish feel to them, providing the perfect backdrop for the more character-led narrative sections.
There are also considerable lengths of story set outside the city in the countryside, where Tim and Pikachu search for clues. My favourite is the flight over a series of massive hills which are revealed as Torterra Pokémon when they all start to stand up, putting the Pokémon Detective Pikachu movie in a class all by itself. There’s never been anything quite like this movie out there: longstanding fans who know their Pokémon and newcomers who don’t are both in for a real treat.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is released by Toho in Japan on 3rd May and Warner Bros. in the UK and Ireland on 10th May 2019.