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‘Pokémon Detective Pikachu’ makes its case

May 15, 2019
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One of the realities of growing older is accepting the fact that pop culture is no longer aimed at you. To paraphrase the proto-creepster philosopher David Wooderson, we keep getting older, but the target demographic of the zeitgeist stays the same age.

It’s less noticeable at the movies, for the most part – the massive monocultural events shooting for four-quadrant appeal don’t much care how old I am – but there are still moments that remind me of the gaps in my pop cultural history.

This brings us to “Pokémon Detective Pikachu.” I will be the first to admit that I have only a passing familiarity with the world of Pokémon, mostly through younger relatives and a brief dalliance with the AR game “Pokémon Go” a couple of years back. How would I review a movie built so thoroughly on preexisting characters and contexts? A story steeped in decades of intricate mythology and scores of previous incarnations?

Pretty easily, as it turns out.

I had a legitimately good time watching “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” despite my rudimentary understanding of the Pokémon phenomenon as a whole. Yes, I was definitely lost with regards to a lot of the specifics – my fellow audience members laughed and cheered for reasons that I didn’t fully understand – but in the general sense, it was still a lot of fun. It’s a family-friendly adventure film with solid performances, a few strong action sequences and a shockingly good aesthetic (the overlay of CGI onto live-action was seriously some of the best I’ve seen).

In a world where Pokémon and humans have always co-existed, it’s rare for anyone to not have a bonded Pokémon partner. Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom”) is one such person, a young man whose childhood desire to be a Pokémon trainer was snuffed out by the death of his mother and the distance of his father.

When Tim finds out his long-estranged dad – Detective Harry Goodman – has died in an accident, he heads to Ryme City to collect Harry’s things. While at Harry’s apartment, Tim encounters his dad’s old Pokémon partner – a Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, “Deadpool 2”) that, rather than communicating solely through repeating its own name, can actually be understood by Tim. Pikachu, despite having lost his memory, has retained his detective skills and seeks to get to the bottom of what happened.

Meanwhile, you’ve also got Ryme City tycoon and visionary Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy, “The Kindness of Strangers”), a man whose personal ailments led him to seek new ways to strengthen the relationship between man and Pokémon. On the other hand, Howard’s son Roger (Chris Geere, TV’s “You’re the Worst”), the acting company president, has ambitions of his own that may not line up with his father’s.

It’s up to Tim and Detective Pikachu – with the help of their new friend, an ambitious young reporter named Lucy (Kathryn Newton, “Blockers”) – to solve the mystery. They need to figure out what is happening and who is behind it, all while holding onto the hope that Tim can find out once and for all just what happened to his father on that fateful night.

I’m not going to lie to you – there are aspects of this movie that are exhausting. Scores of different Pokémon characters are thrown at the screen, each with a unique skill set about which I know nothing. Names that sound like gibberish are tossed about, though the knowing chuckles I heard at my screening indicate they are anything but. I don’t know what these things are or what they can do beyond a few (very) basic identifiers that I’ve picked up through cultural osmosis.

And yet – it doesn’t matter all that much, which is really pretty remarkable. To create a film so thoroughly endowed with a preexisting mythology and constructed on a foundation of decades-deep intellectual property that nevertheless manages to engage with audiences that lack intimate familiarity with said mythology and IP is awfully impressive. It’s quite similar to the formula followed by the MCU, actually – while a depth of knowledge can offer more levels of entertainment value, it isn’t necessary for a baseline level of enjoyment.

It’s not often that you see a buddy cop premise blended with a liberal dose of “boy and his dog” vibes, much of it delivered by way of weird and adorable monsters. Yet director Rob Letterman (who also co-wrote the screenplay) manages to find the balance necessary to make it all work, thanks to some decent jokes, a few fun twists and what I assume is a deep-cut knowledge of Pokémon. And again, the quality of the visual effects work can’t be overstated – it really makes the aesthetic sing.

The performances don’t hurt either. Ryan Reynolds essentially voices Pikachu as a PG-rated Deadpool, with all of the snide snark that description entails. He’s a big part of why the jokes work, which in turn is a large part of why the movie works. Smith is game as Tim, doing an admirable job delivering a nuanced performance considering his scene partner is probably a puppet with ping pong balls stuck to it. Geere and Newton both give solid performances in their respective roles. But the highlight has to be a scenery-chewing Bill Nighy, who seems like he could not be happier to be here. Seriously – Bill Nighy is here for it; judging by his on-screen delight, his weird Pokémon-covert proselytizing on the press tour was for real.

The highest compliment I can pay “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is this – you legitimately don’t have to know a thing about Pokémon to enjoy it. It is charming and goofy and fun and weird, a surprisingly fun time at the movies.

[4 out of 5]

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