Well past the halfway point of Detective Pikachu, WB’s big-budget adaptation of the long-running Pokemon manga/TV show/card game/video game franchise, Ryan Reynolds’ titular detective looks high into the sky and yells, “Oh, I get it. This isn’t a forest – it’s the torterra!” Or something like that.
It’s a line which comes at the tail end of a sequence in which the literal ground beneath the main characters – Pikachu, just-looking-for-my-dead-dad Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), aspiring reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her Pokemon Psyduck – shifts wildly. Rock formations jet upward, flat valleys fold inward, trees fall, land formations suddenly split in half – total pandemonium, basically. Neither they nor we know what the heck is happening until Pikachu notices an eye in the side of one of the mountains.
Finally, the film cuts to a God’s-eye-view to reveal the truth of the situation: The forest is actually just what’s on the backs of at least six gargantuan creatures who presumably spend most of their time sleeping.
Pikachu’s line is meant to explain what we’re seeing but only if we’re Pokemon fans who instantly recognize the word “torterra.” Otherwise, his line concludes a thrilling, but confusing action set piece and the movie promptly moves on to its next story beat. It’s up to the Pokemon fan to patiently educate their friends or family members afterward as to what the hell was happening during that one part where the forest seemed to attack the heroes.
“The torterra are like these big, colossus things which let other Pokemon ride on their backs,” my 11-year-old nephew told me as we walked to the car after the movie. “They only moved at that moment because of all the commotion caused when Psyduck went all psychokinetic.”
Noticing my confused stare, he added, “Remember that video game you own, Shadow of the Colossus? Think of it like that if instead of hunting and killing those nature creatures you just rode on their backs while they slept all the time.”
Ah, finally, a reference made for me. There aren’t a whole lot of those in Detective Pikachu. Other than playing a round or two of Pokemon GO on my phone and once helping my nephew organize his Pokemon cards, I entered Detective Pikachu knowing next to nothing about the Pokemon universe. I walk away from it knowing Pokemon are paired with humans, have wildly differing powers, and cannot really talk outside of saying their own name, which is why it’s so crazy to hear Pikachu sound like Ryan Reynolds in this movie. Plus, there’s a Pokemon called Mewtwo which has vaguely cat-like features and is the most powerful Pokemon on Earth.
During the drive home from the movie, my 6-year-old niece asked me if Mewtwo is the most powerful does that mean Pikachu is the second most powerful? She may or may not have been wearing Pikachu ears at that moment, thus giving her a rooting interest for that “little yellow thing” she thinks is so cute. I said I didn’t think so but I wasn’t sure. Nothing in the movie indicates Pikachu is anywhere near that powerful but nothing in the movie outright states he isn’t. And, spoiler, Pikachu and Mewtwo do end up fighting.
She expects to me know those kinds of things. After any comic book movie, she can and usually does throw any question she wants at me, and I’ll always have an answer. I’m similarly good with any Star Wars movie or animated sequel. Pokemon, however, didn’t break in the States until I was just a tad too old for it. It’s been a complete mystery to me ever since. So, watching Detective Pikachu is a bit of a new experience for me.
This touches on a larger issue with blockbuster cinema today, which is that in order to command budgets in the $150 million and above territory everything has to come with a built-in global audience. Anyone on the outside of that assumed audience, however, either has a lot of homework to do before they can see the big new movie or they just walk in cold and trust the filmmakers to hold their hand through it. (Or they just skip the whole thing entirely and stream something on Netflix.)
Detective Pikachu’s director Rob Letterman knows a thing or two about this since he helmed the excellently inviting R.L. Stine homage Goosebumps. He and his four credited co-writers similarly attempt to make Detective Pikachu enjoyable and understandable for those who know their torterra from their Mewtwo and those who don’t. However, the further the story progresses the further the film just descends into a series of fan servicey moments and lines sure to mystify any Pokemon newbies. At a certain point, you learn to tune it all out and wait for Ryan Reynolds to drop another inspired one-liner.
Because, as you can tell in the trailers, he really is just doing his Deadpool voice. In retrospect, Once Upon a Deadpool, the Christmas cut of Deadpool 2 release into theaters for two weeks last December, seems like a dry run Detective Pikachu. There, Reynolds toned his Deadpool persona down to PG-13. Here, he has it whittled all the way down to PG, and it works astonishingly well…for adults.
For example, in classic Deadpool fashion, there is a car scene where Reynolds riffs in-between exposition. He complains about being stuck in a car seat and chants “serenity now, serenity now” to calm a stressed out Psyduck. My niece didn’t get why it was funny, and that was hardly an isolated incident throughout the movie.
Look, kid, you’ve got to give us something, otherwise, Detective Pikachu is just a weird little wannabe-Blade Runner/Zootopia hybrid about a world in which humans and magical creatures coexist under the watchful eye of a mysterious, possibly corrupt Rupert Murdoch type (Bill Nighy). An investigation by an unlikely pair – Tim and Pikachu – plunges headlong into the dark underbelly of the city and encounters illegal fighting rings, uncooperative witnesses who only communicate via mime, and eventually a conspiracy which goes all the way to the top of the system.
It absolutely feels like a narrative which has been crafted onto an IP which has very little inherent narrative of its own, like when they basically turned The Angry Birds Movie into Shrek. It also feels torn at times between Deadpool satire and family-friendly fan service, as if there’s a darker cut in there somewhere more akin to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Instead, we get something which is pitched a little more down the middle, light enough for newbies to buy into the universe building and follow along but dense enough for the Pokemon fans to cheer.
Detective Pikachu doesn’t always ride the balance as well as it could, but the best realization of this approach probably comes near the end. I won’t spoil the plot details, but Pikachu is feeling emotionally distraught and isolated. Walking atop a bridge, he mournfully sings the following lyrics, his voice hilariously cracking after every word, “It’s you and me, I know it’s my destiny, Pokemon!”
It’s funny because, well, Ryan Reynolds.
It’s also funny because he’s actually singing the Pokemon theme song.
Kids and adults, fans and non-fans alike can enjoy that moment, but the fans will probably get more out of it.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I suddenly have far more sympathy for anyone who has ever been dragged to a Star Wars or Marvel movie and didn’t have any idea what the hell was going on. However, Detective Pikachu noir-esque story gives the film just enough story to string together fan service and Ryan Reynolds one-liners. I mostly came for the one-liners. I wish there had been more of them.