I had fun watching Detective Pikachu, a fuzzy, endearingly slimy first crack at a live action-animation hybrid from the Pokmon Company. It was a strange kind of fun though – a bit like the fun you have in being a plus-one at a wedding: a perfectly jolly, mercifully brief time out, that does also come with a nagging sense that whether or not you actually enjoyed it is irrelevant, really, because this whole thing was put together for someone else.
A lot of that, I think, is just the nature of watching kids’ films as an adult – but maybe that’s the point: I was hoping for a little bit more than that, and despite a healthy first half and promising Pokmon cameos, I never got it.
Detective Pikachu, if you’ve been paying attention, has been packaged and pushed, rather heavily, as a bit of an antidote to regular, mid-summer blandness. It’s pitched as a sort of sludgy, shamelessly millennial-baiting grotesquerie, the kind that’s been missing from video game adaptations, at least for the past couple of decades, since we all got nightmares from that ’90s Super Mario Bros. movie and decided to give it a rest. Danny DeVito isn’t giving Pikachu the Bob Hoskins treatment but Ryan Reynolds’ll do, you might be thinking, as long as he’s on Deadpool form and, as long as there’s plenty of Lickitung gunge.
Against those loftily gross standards, Detective Pikachu falls sadly short. Maybe unsurprisingly, this is still very much a children’s film, and it’s still very much a Pokmon one at that: it’s still squeaky-clean, despite the back-alley Ryme City footage you might have seen; it’s still at times quite painfully over-explained, so the littlest ones can keep up; and still a little scared to loosen up and get weird, under the crushing weight of such an enormous, well-oiled brand.
Away from the shadow of its own marketing, Detective Pikachu is at least a perfectly alright time. Tim Goodman (an enthusiastic Justice Smith), is just a small town boy, comfortably living in such a lonely world – without a partner Pokmon – that his mate can’t even get him to catch a Cubone (which, if you know your Pokmon, should be a kindred spirit). Soon enough he’s summoned into action in Ryme City, and thrust into the company of this hat-wearing, desperately cute coffee-sipping Pikachu – who was once teamed up with his late (or missing?) detective father – and who Tim and only Tim can understand.
“Its willingness to try and take risks, at first, only to retreat back into its shell, is what’s so frustrating”
Here, in the grand circus of Ryme City, the film’s at its best: cracking jokes, smearing on the neo-noir panache, and pulling back the curtain on its most thoughtfully rendered, gleefully foul-looking Pokmon. Mr. Mime in particular is a delight, horrifying and infuriating in an all-too-brief cameo as a typically reluctant informant (and a lovely, on-the-nose metaphor for what the film does best, in personifying its most expressive creatures). The city itself bursts with life in these early stages, filled with predictably well-executed nods to the games – trusty police Growlithe, huffy, serenading Jigglypuff and a sleeping Snorlax blocking the road – but also with cute nods to detective-noir.
Ryme City is so good, so colourful and slick and stylised, that once the film moves on it’s hard for the rest to really compare. As Tim and Pikachu move onwards, with the help of plucky reporter Lucy Stephens (Kathryn Newton, whose character is a much better detective than the two boys put together), it’s all very much bread-and-butter, summer kids flick stuff. Thrills and spills, minor intrigue and some certifiably mild peril, punctuated with the odd gem of one-liner. There’s a perfectly digestible plot that side characters – and main ones, Pikachu himself the worst offender – are painstakingly dedicated to describing out loud explaining each action at every turn.
By the time the story’s worked its way back to the city, most of that care and attention to detail has been lost. The neon-glowing, rain-slicked, Blade Runner-pastiching back alleys are replaced with big grey streets and bland grey buildings, the plot’s worked its way up to a mostly unremarkable bit of climactic action and, most disappointingly if you’ve been playing who’s-that-Pokmon along the way, most of the creatures are repeated. If you’ve seen one or two trailers – or just the first third of the film – you’ve also seen most of the interesting Pokmon, which seems like such a missed opportunity, given the clear amount of care and attention applied when they’re first introduced, and the huge potential of the eight-hundred-plus ‘mon in the Pokdex. A charmingly schlocky turn from Bill Nighy does some good to energise things (in the face of an agonisingly wooden cameo from Rita Ora, which does the exact opposite), but it’s never really enough to properly snap, at least not with the kind of humour the film seemed to promise.
It does feel a little unduly harsh, at times, to pull Detective Pikachu up on such things – especially when so few blockbusters are willing to gamble on anything, let alone such sacred pillars as their art style or comedic tone – but then its willingness to try and take risks, at first, only to retreat back into its shell, is what’s so frustrating. It’s at its best when left-field characters like Ludicolo or Psyduck, in their shonky, quivering, pinprick-googly-eyed oddness, are allowed centre stage – but then a lot like Psyduck, Detective Pikachu seems a little bit scared of its own potential. I’m sure your children will love it, and I reckon your inner child will probably love it, but that big kid who saw the trailers and started hoping for a little more will probably feel a bit let down.