Clearly Pokémon have inherited the earth. Once a 1990s phenomenon that left parents perplexed and children in awe, it’s been 23 years since Pokémon Red and Blue appeared stateside, and now parents who grew up on it themselves are getting ready to pass a love of Pikachu to a whole new crop of kids who might’ve never even played Pokémon Go. So it’s only fitting that Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, the new Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures production that puts a deerstalker cap on an electric rodent’s head and the voice of Deadpool in his mouth, stars a legitimate Pokémon scholar. And we’re not referring to Ryan Reynolds, but rather his non-CGI on-screen partner, Justice Smith.
“Very cursory,” Reynolds admits to me in a separate interview about his breadth of Poké knowledge. “I mean, I don’t live in a bomb shelter, so I know about Pokémon and I know about Detective Pikachu, but I really didn’t know the nuance, I didn’t know the ins and outs… and I’m still not as versed as Justice. Justice knows everything about it, like lives it, breathes it.”
Indeed, he does. In an interview with Smith and Kathryn Newton, both of whom play humans living in a Pokémon’s world, Smith admits with a mild form of humility that he grew up with Pokémon. So did Newton, but when Smith begins to list about a dozen Pokémon in the encyclopedic order they’re numbered from the original games—leaning forward in his squeaking chair like a kid geeking out over trading cards that note the evolutional cycle of Bulbasaur, Squirtle, and Charmander—it is his co-star who mockingly says in the below video “that’s more than enough.”
Smith more earnestly recalls, “I had all the original cards, I played Pokémon Gold, one of the first games I got for Gameboy Color, I watched the anime.” It was a huge part of his childhood, something Newton thinks is a touchstone for most people their age.
“Do you think it’s just like a generational thing?” Newton asks. “I feel like all my friends love Pokémon. I’ve been working my whole life, and it’s the only project any of my friends are excited about.” For Smith, the appeal is that it spans all generations between the ages of three and 30—and his own younger sisters, who are around 10-years-old, are also now getting into it.
That basis likely helped when playing off Reynolds, who in the film is an acerbic Pikachu that enlists Smith’s Tim Goodman to get to the bottom of a missing partner in the seedy Poké town of Rhyme City. The process was so important to director Rob Letterman and the actors involved that Smith and Reynolds began recording the latter’s performance before official shooting started, and then Reynolds came to set to play off Smith and Newton there.
“We did have a week long rehearsal process before we started shooting where we kind of felt our dynamic,” Smith recalls, “and Ryan wore a motion-capture helmet. Then when we had a couple of days where he was on set just to improvise.” The key was discovering a rhythm between all of the actors. It allowed Reynolds to get comfortable with how to play off Smith and practice “cross-talking,” but it also let the actors to know what a Ryan Reynolds Pikachu was like, especially when he was not there. Because even for days where the star was not present, Pikachu is supposed to remain in the scene with Tim and Newton’s Lucy. The latter of whom is an ace investigative reporter—if she can ever get past her internship status at the newsroom and the fact that her own personal Psyduck is a walking time bomb.
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“If you know Psyduck, his special power, so to speak, is when he gets massive headaches he explodes, right?” Newton says. “So does Lucy!” It also meant that she had to always know when Psyduck was on her shoulder, which is no easy feat since the movie rarely shot in front of blue or green screen, meaning the actors had to estimate where their Pokémon always were.
“You just kind of remember where they are in the space at all times,” Smith says. “Like I remember Kathryn had to know when Psyduck’s bill is facing up as opposed to facing down, and how big his head was so she could pet him. And when Pikachu was on my shoulder, I’d have to counteract his weight and lean my head forward that way if he crawls on my other shoulder… It’s just always remembering where he is. It took a lot of rehearsal.”
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It paid off in a Detective Pikachu movie that, we’d contend, is the best video game movie to date. With its neon-hued back alleys and rainsoaked streets, it evokes a classic noir aesthetic. And given there might be room for a sequel, I had to ask at the end of our time if Newton and Smith would be up for another Pokémon adventure that is more of a muckraking quest for Lucy—Detective Pikachu goes to The Post.
“That would be cool,” Smith considers. Newton already has her pitch though, saying Lucy brings down the “President of Rhyme City, and all Pokémon are free and get their own planet.”
We imagine that would suit Reynolds’ Detective Pikachu just fine, which you’re able to deduce for yourself since the movie is in theaters now.
David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.