Not long into Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, it becomes clear that the movie is never going to make what you might call sense.
“What have you done?” a character cries, and it’s evident nobody can answer that question, least of all writer-director Rob Letterman, charged with trying to find a way to adapt the durable youth brand (toys, video games, anime, playing cards), about humans and their little Pokémon friends, into a movie.
His plan is to import the characters into a story framed as a mystery — a young man named Tim (Justice Smith) learns that his police detective father has died while on a case in Ryme City, a place where humans and Pokémon have learned to live together, having evolved past the point where humans capture and train the creatures in order to stage Pokémon battles.
The implication is that Pokémon battles are a kind of unenlightened barbarism, a sign the movie does not fully understand its intended audience — people from 5 to 50 who are either fantasizing about Pokémon battles, or remembering how much fun they had arranging them. The audience may also include people playing Pokémon Go on the way to the theater, capturing Squirtles along the way.
In the movie’s Ryme City, that backwardness has been erased, thanks to the visionary leadership of some rich guy (Bill Nighy), who has designed the metropolis to foster human Pokémon interaction. The movie is full of cityscapes designed to convey that idea — lots of inter-species commuters, shoppers, pedestrians. You can walk into a bar and find humans and Pokémon sharing a drink. What that might lead to is a question the movie — pitched to younger viewers — is wise to avoid.
It’s really interested in one main question: What happened to Tim’s father? Tim is estranged from his dad, and pretends not to care, but when he meets his father’s Pokémon police partner, Pikachu (the wisecracking voice of Ryan Reynolds), he is persuaded to probe the mystery of the car crash that purportedly killed his father.
This involves a larger conspiracy involving unseen forces using Pokémon for sinister purposes. There is a noxious purple gas that turns friendly Pokémon into little monsters, fighting in an illegal underground of outlawed Pokémon battles. It’s a deep-pocketed conspiracy, with its own mysterious research center.
Tim and Pikachu investigate all of this, and seem to get to the bottom of something, but the movie, while cheerful, is entirely incoherent. Some doubters may suspect that my confusion stems from the fact that I don’t understand Pokémon culture. To them I say that starting in 2000 and running through 2010, I was asked, dozens of times a day, the same question: Who’s your favorite Pokémon? Even though the answer was always the same. Freaking Gengar.
Knowing about Pokémon will not help you parse this movie’s impenetrable plot pile, which comprises amnesia, gene-splitting, mind-control headgear, etc. Great actors, consigned to the margins, look confused, especially Ken Watanabe. Even consummate pro Nighy seems annoyed, as if longing for the good old days of Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. With Justice Smith, Ryan Reynolds, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, and Kathryn Newton. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 1 hour, 44 mins.
Parents guide: PG (action/peril, some rude and suggestive humor, and thematic elements)