Turning from a film-noir pastiche into a zany superhero blockbuster, Pokémon Detective Pikachu “refuses to make any sense whatsoever”, writes Nicholas Barber.

Pokémon may be one of the biggest multi-media franchises ever, having featured in video games, card games, comics and cartoons by the lorryload since 1996. But if you haven’t consumed any of those, the whole enterprise is pretty much unfathomable. After all, you don’t have to have read a Batman comic to follow the concept of a masked-man beating up bank robbers. Pokémon, on the other hand... well, it’s set in an alternate reality in which people go around stalking big-eyed, super-powered monsters, trapping them inside metal orbs like high-tech genies and then releasing these monsters so that they can have gladiatorial battles with each other. It isn’t clear what the monsters get out of this violent slavery, and the first live-action Pokémon film, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, doesn’t make things much clearer. If anything, viewers who aren’t already familiar with the franchise will stumble out of the cinema even more puzzled than when they went in. 

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The film’s young hero is Tim (Justice Smith), a prickly small-town insurance agent who hears that his estranged father, a police detective, has been killed in a car accident. The bereavement requires Tim to “wrap things up” in some vague way, which means catching the train to Ryme City, a futuristic megalopolis (actually London’s financial district, with some digital gussying up) where humans and their Pokémon pals live together in peace and harmony. Indeed, some humans have a symbiotic link with particular Pokémon, much like the people and their daemons in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels. Harry’s former boss (Ken Watanabe), for instance, shares his office with a grumpy demonic bulldog, which, like the rest of the Pokémon, is a CGI creation slotted into a live-action setting. Other Pokémon appear to be more or less as intelligent as humans, which raises some troubling questions about their civil rights. But these questions, like every question you might have about the Poké-verse, are left unanswered. 

It is left to Reynolds’s Pikachu to inject some humour by babbling as many irreverent asides as he can

As for Tim, he is a Poké-phobe until he meets the furry yellow Pikachu, a coffee-addicted beastie, who looks like a cuddly toy, with a lightning bolt-shaped tail. (One character comments that his deerstalker hat is the weirdest thing about him, which is highly debatable.) As far as most humans are concerned, Pikachu can’t say anything except for a gurgled “Pika,” but to Tim’s ears, he has the voice and the trademark cynical wisecracks of Ryan Reynolds. He claims that he has lost his memory, but he knows that he used to be Tim’s father’s partner – and he knows that Tim’s father is still alive. Tim reluctantly agrees to investigate, with the help of a rookie reporter / love interest (Kathryn Newton) whose pet Pokémon is, errrm, a giant duck who sends out psychic shockwaves whenever he has a headache. Together they uncover a conspiracy that will ring bells if you’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and even louder bells if you’ve seen Disney’s Zootopia.

If you’re hoping for the usual pleasures of a well-made family-friendly adventure movie – engaging characters, clever twists, decent jokes – this surreal shaggy monster story will have you sending out a few shockwaves of your own. The human cast treats the nonsensical scenario as if it were profoundly serious, and it is left to Reynolds’s Pikachu to inject some humour by babbling as many irreverent asides as he can. If you’re hoping for any kind of consistent internal logic, you’ll be frustrated, too. Pokémon Detective Pikachu begins as a moody film-noir pastiche, with all the Venetian blinds, neon signs and rainy alleyways you might expect. But its director and co-writer, Rob Letterman (Shark Tale), soon forgets about vintage private-eye movies, and lets his film mutate into a zany superhero blockbuster.

It’s so bizarre that you’ll wonder if you nodded off halfway through and dreamt the rest of it

In terms of its plot outline, it’s a fairly typical, predictable kids’ yarn. In terms of the plot’s details, though, it’s so bizarre that you’ll wonder if you nodded off halfway through and dreamt the rest of it. By the end of the film, I couldn’t recall whether Pikachu had done anything at all which would qualify as detective work. What I could recall is Bill Nighy as a benevolent tycoon in a robotic wheelchair, Rita Ora as a bespectacled scientist, some holographic dioramas, several dragons, a shapeshifting purple blob, and a supernatural forest which folds itself up as spectacularly as Paris folded itself in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. 

Perhaps this will seem perfectly normal to Pokémon aficionados. To the rest of us, the film’s bamboozling randomness is what saves it from being nothing more than a corporate cash-in. Pokémon Detective Pikachu has so much pace – and, of course, so many cute CGI monsters – that children should be happy to accept its cartoonish silliness. Anyone who is dragged along to the cinema by a young relative may be bored by the bland characters and the rote mystery plot for a while, but, if you let yourself go with it, you can relish the fun of never knowing what is going to happen or why. Ultimately, there is something liberating about how hallucinatory and wacky it all is. There may even be something daring and anarchic about a film which stubbornly refuses to make any sense whatsoever.

★★☆☆☆

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