Having Ryan Reynolds’ trademark snark emerge from the mouth of a cuddly yellow fuzzball is a juxtaposition every bit as bizarre as any of the hybrid creatures that inhabit the Pokémon universe. But for those unfamiliar with (or with a fierce antipathy to) this world-conquering Japanese franchise the Deadpool star’s deadpan irreverence offers a convenient gateway into an alternative reality. The Poké-verse is a place where humans co-exist with endearing, generally benign monsters they can keep miniaturised in their pockets beside their house keys and chewing gum.
This isn’t an option available to 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), an easily agitated insurance appraiser who has yet to find a pocket monster willing to be housed in his personal Pokéball. But that’s the least of his problems. His private investigator dad Henry has mysteriously gone missing while probing some shady goings-on at a remote research facility tucked away in the countryside.
Having taken the first train to nearby metropolis Ryme City, Tim gets the brush-off from the world-weary cop in charge of the case (Ken Watanabe, one of the cast’s few Asian performers). Yet the trail gets hotter once he meets his dad’s partner Detective Pikachu (Reynolds), a diminutive furry rodent in a deerstalker hat whose high-pitched chirruping Tim can miraculously comprehend. (Pokémon, as a rule, can only speak their own names, making them something of a challenge from a conversational standpoint.)
Heading out into the city’s neon-lit streets, this mismatched duo rapidly uncover a conspiracy involving menacing feline biped Mewtwo, a Pokémon neurologist (pop singer Rita Ora, seen here fleetingly in expositional flashbacks) and a purple gas that turns docile critters into feral beasties. If that sounds a little like Zootropolis, it’s par for the course for a film whose basic set-up is lifted from Who Framed Roger Rabbit and which finds time for a Fight Club-like cage battle and a Men In Black-style rooftop chase en route to a climactic street parade with outsized balloons that echoes Tim Burton’s Batman.
But when it’s not recalling earlier, superior pictures, Detective Pikachu does occasionally surprise. This could well be the first film where an interrogation is conducted in mime, while an epic set-piece featuring shuffling Torterra – gigantic tortoises with entire mountains stuck on their backs – provides a welcome splash of outlandish spectacle. Pikachu’s scrap with the fire-breathing Charizard is another highlight, as is any scene involving the excitable Psyduck that always accompanies eager cub reporter Lucy (Kathryn Newton). Bill Nighy, meanwhile, brings class to the proceedings as Howard Clifford, a billionaire bigwig with an upstart son who can’t wait for him to retire.
When all is said and done, though, you don’t need to be a detective to spot the film’s greatest asset. Indeed, from the second he appears, Detective Pikachu is Reynolds’ to command, his every wisecrack, protestation and throwaway aside generating a smile, a chuckle or a guffaw. “Case closed – but still open, until I close it!” he declares in one typical moment of linguistic grandstanding. His tearful rendition of the ‘Gotta Catch ’Em All’ theme song, meanwhile, is just one of the creative ways Goosebumps director Rob Letterman celebrates the Pokémon legacy while simultaneously cutting it down to size.
How does Ryan’s Pikachu know that he and Tim make a good team? He feels it in his jellies. We feel in ours this will not be the last we see of this particular double act.
Detective Pikachu is out in cinemas on May 10 in the US and UK.