I’ll admit upfront that I was highly skeptical of the new “live-action” Pokémon movie when it was first announced. It’s not the Pokémon property itself that had me rolling my eyes. To the contrary, I was excited to see a CG Pikachu go on a seedy urban adventure in the real world, encountering a vast array of fellow pocket monsters along the way. It was the announcement of Ryan Reynolds’s casting as the voice of Pikachu that had me worried. Detective Pikachu is specifically adapted from a Pokémon videogame in which the electric-rodent yokai is voiced by a hard-boiled detective, finding humor in the contrast between his cutesy appearance and his tough-guy demeanor. Personally, I’d much rather see these same CG characters & world designs treated with a straight-forward, genuine sentient true to the series’ kawaii beginnings. Covering up those cutesy impulses with a joking, above-it-all snark from the most sarcastic wisecracker in the business seemed like preemptively apologizing for making a Pokémon movie in the first place, as if it were embarrassing that adults would want to see something so cute & nerdy without a smartass celebrity there to hold our hands and reassure us that it is Cool. Basically, I was afraid that Ryan Reynolds was going to transform Pikachu into Lil’ Deadpool.
I’m happy to report that Reynolds’s mood-ruining smartassery only distracted from Pikachu’s cuteness to a minimal degree. This is a movie where Pikachu makes sex jokes (including an alarming one about people nonconsensually sticking fingers inside of him), refers to strangers with pet names like “Sweetie” & “Doll,” and constantly pressures his human partner to flirt with women. I would have much rather had the electro-rat in question only say its own name in cutesy Pokémon tradition to the annoyance of a tough-guy human detective partner (as if its Who Framed Roger Rabbit? lineage couldn’t be any clearer), but you take what you can get. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a compromise for everyone who dares enter. No one who is disinterested in Pokémon’s inherent kawaii appeal is going to give the movie a short based on Ryan Reynold’s voice acting, nor based on the film’s Baby’s First Noir plot in which a young teen finds himself (and his missing father) in a futuristic Tokyo. Those inconveniences are just obligatory concessions to get a Pokémon movie greenlit by studio executives in the first place, so that the already-converted could all get a gander at our favorite pocket monsters on the big screen (and, in my case, in 3-D). I do think the concessions are worth the effort, though. No matter what you must put up with to get a look at them, the pokémon themselves remain very, very cute.
Detective Pikachu is pretty damn cute overall, but in every single frame where there weren’t any pokémon I was thinking “Where’s the pokémon?,” so I guess it could have been cuter. Squirtles, Psyducks, and Mr. Mimes (along with pokétypes I’ve forgotten the names of in the decades since I really enjoyed this stuff as a kid) all get their chance to shine alongside brand-ambassador Pikachu, but I greedily wanted more. The movie starts off in the deep end of pokélore with references to Mewtwo, the personality differences been fire & water types, and all kinds of other series-specific jargon that would confuse anyone outside A Certain Generation who grew up with this nonsense. It even eventually follows Pokémon movie tradition in claiming themes against the capture, subjugation, and battling of pokémon despite those morally bankrupt practices all being essential to series lore (to the point of referenced in its theme song). Still, it ultimately settles into a serviceable, but forgettable neon & synths noir that distracts from its higher purpose: parading as many cute-as-fuck pokémon across the screen as it can in under two hours. The absurdity of enlisting Ken Watanabe for its pokénoir proceedings was amusing, but I even would have traded that living legend for another few seconds of pokémon cuteness, preferably without Lil’ Deadpool’s incongruous horniness spoiling the mood.