Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, while slow at times, is a boisterous, Pokémon-packed ride intertwined with a surprisingly enthralling mystery—and this is very likely the first quality entry in the videogame movie genre.
Detective Pikachu, directed by Rob Letterman (Shark Tale, Goosebumps), is based on the 2016 3DS game of the same name, and it is the first live-action film adaption of the Pokémon franchise, which was created by Satoshi Tajiri all the way back in 1995. It follows 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, The Get Down, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) as he travels to the bustling metropolis of Ryme City to settle affairs with Harry, his police detective father, who apparently died in a tragic car accident. Soon after his arrival, though, he encounters an amnesiac Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool, Buried)—the famous electricity-harnessing mouse with red cheeks and a zigzag tail. This isn’t the one who rides along with Ash Ketchum, though; this is an amnesiac Pikachu who claims to be Harry’s Pokémon partner, wears a Sherlock Holmes-esque deerstalker, and is determined to believe that Harry is still alive. Even more intriguing, Tim is the only person who can communicate with him, giving them the advantages they need to partner up and uncover the trail of dark machinations that led to the car accident.
Suffice to say, you have to see this movie if you’re a hardcore Pokémon aficionado. Ryme City, contrary to other regions, is a place where Pokémon aren’t kept in the iconic red-and-white Pokéballs but instead are allowed to roam free and live as equals alongside humans. This means the audience gets to see Snorlax, Pancham, Charizard, Gengar, Cubone, Snubbull, all those little (and sometimes huge) creatures fill the screen through astonishing CGI animation, helping the movie become a great tribute to the wide world of Pokémon. Plus, it has tons of Easter eggs for the Pokémon community to discover. The movie could be harder to grasp if you’re only a casual fan or maybe even (gasp!) not into Pokémon at all, although I think it has plenty going for it that would make a trip to the theater worth your time and money. And hopefully you’ll enjoy the Seinfeld and Home Alone references. It’s also nice to catch the cameos by pop singer Rita Ora and DJ/record producer Diplo.
Ryme City, an energetic example of world-building that gives off Blade Runner vibes, also differs from other regions in another way: Pokémon Battles are outlawed. However, we do get to see a bit of battling through an underground tournament. Seeing this familiar activity translated from the anime and the videogames to a live-action film, funnily enough, was what made me question the core of the Pokémon franchise itself. Think about it—the whole thing is about capturing the creatures against their will and pitting them against each other in tournaments. Sure, you get to grow close emotional bonds with them (wait, not all the time, look at that initial disaster between Ash and Pikachu), but the concept feels odd nonetheless. I felt this way especially when watching a scene near the beginning where Tim attempts to capture a small dinosaur called a Cubone that wears the skull of its dead mother (I know, intense). Again, a very natural pastime from the anime and the videogames, but it’s so strange to see it in live-action. That is why I’m glad Detective Pikachu takes place in Ryme City, where battles are illegal and where Pokémon aren’t kept in Pokéballs, allowing those issues to be pushed to the wayside.
Everyone who’s familiar with Reynolds knows he has a brand of edgy, wisecracking humor, and it feels like he holds back some of that while voicing Detective Pikachu. Seriously, he recorded explicit lines that, very obviously, couldn’t be used in the movie; they must have been reminiscent of Deadpool’s foul chops. But he manages to throw out amusing quips one after another through Pikachu, whether he’s rationalizing his coffee addiction, piecing together evidence from the case that he and Tim are trying to crack, or interrogating Mr. Mime like a bad cop (one of my favorite scenes).
I can’t forget to mention the indisputable fact that Pikachu is adorable—nothing like that abominable Sonic the Hedgehog in the upcoming live-action flick (what is it with those lanky legs and human teeth?). The animators deserve praise for designing the Pokémon so beautifully; my favorites, aside from Pikachu, include Mewtwo and Mr. Mime. Trivia fact: the few times we hear Pikachu speak his own name in high-pitched tones, it’s done by Ikue Ōtani, the actress who plays Ash’s Pikachu in the anime series.
I have never played Detective Pikachu on the 3DS, so I don’t know much about the details of its mystery, aside from the fact that Tim does go and search for his missing father by joining forces with a coffee-obsessed, smart-mouthed Detective Pikachu. What I can say is that the story focuses on Tim’s arc as he struggles to break down his relationship with his estranged father and therefore finds it difficult to accept help from Pikachu and open up to him; it also uses flashbacks to reveal his forgotten dreams of becoming a Pokémon Trainer. This is where scenes can move along at a leisurely or awkward pace; its flaws become most apparent when the story tries to squeeze in the extraneous relationship between Ryme City’s creator Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy, Love Actually, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest) and his son Roger (Chris Geere, You’re the Worst, Ill Behaviour). But the “difficult parent-child relationship” trope isn’t all for naught; it grows into a compelling part of the plot in regards to Tim and ends up resolving in the best way possible, supporting the movie with an emotional backbone that’s overall solid.
Then there’s the mystery that Tim and Pikachu endeavor to solve, along with the assistance of aspiring reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton, Big Little Lies, The Society) and her charming Psyduck, a duck-like Pokemon who provides laughs through its interactions with Pikachu. The trailers had given me a vague sense of the detective work, but I didn’t expect to get caught up in it as much as I did. To quote Pikachu, “That’s a twist. That’s very twisty.” While the mystery takes quite a few twists and turns, it remains engaging and easy to comprehend, never feeling convoluted. Evaluating it after the movie ended, though, did help me realize how silly and overly frenetic some of the parts are; even then, that should be expected for something like this.
I praise Detective Pikachu for its cultural diversity, featuring a black actor for Tim, a Japanese actor (Ken Watanabe, Letters from Iwo Jima, 2014 reboot of Godzilla) as police lieutenant Detective Yoshida, and further representation for background characters and crowds; there were even people speaking sign language. Unfortunately, the only genuine problem I have is with the movie’s male-centric structure. Lucy is the only significant female character, and while I like her design as the high-energy reporter keen on getting the next scoop, it’s marred by the unnecessary romance between her and Tim. There isn’t even that much chemistry, and Pikachu keeps popping in relationship jokes that feel forced. I would have been much happier if there was no romance and there were more females in main protagonist roles.
Despite its flaws, this is the first occasion where a videogame-based film is successfully offering its viewers quality entertainment. To understand this from a broader scope, consider how harshly audiences panned Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, Doom, Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed, and many other big-screen adaptations of games. Sure, you can have fun watching them in a “it’s so bad it’s good” fashion. (I still can’t get over Jim Carrey hamming it up as Dr. Robotnik.) But the energy, the humor, and, of course, the multitude of Pokémon are what set Detective Pikachu several levels above everything else.
And yes, I’m very, very thrilled by the buzz about that upcoming sequel in the works. Who knows, maybe this could emulate Marvel Studios’s Iron Man by kicking off the Pokémon Cinematic Universe.
Windup score: 88/100