Unless you’re very familiar with the concept of Pokémon, to the point where the sound of Bill Nighy saying “MewTwo” doesn’t strike you as at all strange, you probably won’t get much out of the Pokémon Detective Pikachu experience. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that; for example, if you don’t like cilantro, there will be certain salsas you don’t enjoy. If you don’t speak French, you may want to forego reading untranslated Victor Hugo. The uninitiated should not expect the full experience.
Pokémon has been a worldwide phenomenon for decades, and there are people out there who will be delighted by the subversion of turning its cutest and most famous mascot into a Sam Spade-style sleuth in a photorealistic setting. You might be one of them. I’m certainly not. But the fact that it never speaks down to its audiences, and never insults their intelligence with the psychotic stupidity of many children’s movies, is enough to call it a success.
The story follows Tim (Justice Smith), who is called back to Ryme City after the death of his father Harry in a car crash. The circumstances surrounding the accident raise more questions than they answer, which are only exacerbated when Harry’s former Pokémon companion, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), turns up with amnesia—and also with the ability to talk and be understood by Tim. Meanwhile, an eager reporter (Kathryn Newton) is hot on the trail of a mysterious substance called R that puts Pokémon in a vicious, heightened, and violent state. Its origins are murky, but it clearly involves some shady dealings between powerful people in both business and government.
This movie could only be so good, and massive credit is due for trying to make it work as a legitimate standalone story. The filmmakers—director Rob Letterman, working from a script by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Letterman, and Derek Connolly—truly believe in the conceit of the story. It never seems strange that Pokémon exist, or that there is a city where battles (the main thing they’re known for) are illegal, and a duck causing a psychic earthquake from stress is not the weirdest thing people will see that day. This world is inhabited by both Pokémon trainers and insurance salesmen, gumshoe cops and ancient, mysterious monsters capable of unimaginable magic. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but that is also its charm.
Any movie fan will likely see many of the twists coming. It could double as a template for all detective stories: Replace the Pokémon with mobsters, replace R with diamonds, and boom, it’s Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler (down to the fact that Tim sells insurance). What sells Detective Pikachu beyond its gimmick is the dedication of the cast and crew to making this strange thing work (and let’s just make Justice Smith a legit star in his own right already).
Pokémon Detective Pikachu / PG, 104 minute / Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
See it again
Steel Magnolias / PG,125 minutes
Regal Stonefield Cinema / May 19 & 21
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema 377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056, drafthouse.com/charlottesville
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213, regmovies.com
Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000, charlottesville.violetcrown.com z Check theater websites for listings.