It’s been nearly three years since Niantic launched Pokémon Go, a mobile game that allowed players to simulate the experience of catching the powered-up Pocket Monsters in the real world. After a sensational launch, the app’s popularity has waned, although a select group of die-hards still carry on the fight (I took a break in the middle of this paragraph to catch a couple of Aipom), but the idea of transforming Pokémon from two-dimensional video game characters and trading-card illustrations into living, zapping 3D creations is the impetus behind Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, which inserts the likes of Squirtle, Charmander, and Bulbasaur into the landscape of futuristic film noir.
The addition of fire-breathing lizards and mutable blobs of purple goo isn’t, to be clear, something the landscape of futuristic film noir has been crying out for, and while the movie has its roots in one of Pokémon’s spinoff video games, it’s an odd departure from the familiar world of battles and trades, one that requires turning the movie’s titular creature from an adorable trisyllabic lump into a wisecracking fuzzball voiced by Ryan Reynolds, essentially doing a PG riff on his Deadpool persona. He’s paired with Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a former aspiring Pokémon trainer out to solve the mystery of his estranged father’s murder with an oversize, occasionally hat-wearing mouse by his side.
If that sounds silly, well, we’re just getting started. After discovering Pikachu in his father’s office and realizing, for reasons the movie takes most of its length to even begin to explain, that what sounds like “pika pika” to everyone else comes across as complete sentences to him, Tim and his newfound partner set out to investigate the seedy underbelly of Ryme City, where peaceful Pokémon are induced to fight each other by means of a black-market chemical. Along the way, they meet an idealistic tech mogul (Bill Nighy) with utopian ideals about the relationship between humans and Pokémon and an energetic news intern (Kathryn Newton) who thinks she’s uncovered evidence of a widespread conspiracy. But the encounters that matter are the ones with Pokémon themselves. Only a half-dozen or so play significant roles: Newton is trailed by Psyduck, a grungy, waddling fowl with an explosive temperament, and Mr. Mime, a clown who communicates only in gestures, is the subject of a particularly tricky interrogation. But the frame is crammed with so many that it might take several viewings to catch them all. (Until I stopped keeping track, my notes were a steady string of split-second sightings: “Loudred … Ludicolo … Vigoroth(?)”)
Intensive Pokéspotting might seem like a distraction from Detective Pikachu’s plot, but it’s more like the other way around. Smith’s a charismatic hero, Newton infectiously game, and it’s a hoot to hear Nighy intoning gibberish about the next evolution of Pokémon with Shakespearean grandiloquence. But the movie’s not subtle about its raison d’être, which is to show off as many intricately rendered critters as humanly possible. Adding a third dimension to 2D icons, and making them photoreal, is a fraught process, as the Sonic the Hedgehog movie recently learned, and the initial glimpses made it seem as if the movie might slip into the uncanny valley. But the largely computer-generated creatures have a slightly worn quality, like bedraggled stuffed animals plucked from the floor of a family car. (There are a handful of bona fide puppets as well, but it’s a credit to the movie’s animators that it can be tough to tell which is which.) You can almost imagine them taking up residence in the Hundred Acre Wood alongside Winnie the Pooh, bits of stuffing poking out along especially well-loved seams.
Despite its sizable budget, Detective Pikachu has a similarly run-down quality. What story there is barely makes sense, and it feels as if large chunks have been taken out at random. But in a world packed full of franchise-extending would-be blockbusters, there’s something strangely appealing about its patchiness. (I was reminded, with unexpected fondness, of Howard the Duck.) You don’t feel like you’re being suffocated by corporate imperatives or goaded toward in-app purchases while you’re watching—you may not, in fact, feel much of anything beyond “That looks neat.” But it’s a kind of relief not to have your emotions dictated to you, to feel free to hang out for a while, and simply leave when you’re done.