Review: Detective Pikachu

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is fun, and it feels like a video game adaptation made by people who actually care about the franchise. That’s impressive–it’s at this point trite to note that film adaptations of video games are terrible as a rule. Even walking into the theater, excited by nostalgic appeal and the promise of what would at the very least be a colorful (if cheesy) adventure, I doubted whether I’d be fully on-board with the hyper-realistic depictions of Pokémon; this mood was not helped any by a pre-showing trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, with the titular character living deep in the uncanny valley and dialogue that is somehow both campy and generic.

I was swiftly converted, however, by a beautiful early sequence depicting plausible Pokémon inhabiting the world. Even more important was the film’s tone, established quickly, which leans heavy into whimsy and comedy. This is evident from our introduction to Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, bringing a greater degree of bravery and emotional range to the character type he played in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who is tricked into accompanying his childhood friend (Karan Soni, with a quirky comic persona for his one scene) to catch a Cubone. Tim’s friend thinks that they’d be a good match because they’re both “lonely.” We learn that Pokémon can only be caught if they’re willing to be partnered with a trainer. Tim, reluctant to even make the effort, attempts to befriend the Cubone by telling it that not many people could pull off wearing the skull of a “dead relative.” The tiny Cubone does not react kindly to this, to say the least, leading to a failed catch attempt, a hilariously short retreat, and a colossal wipe-out.

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Cubone fleeing before the tables are turned.

Justice Smith spends a good portion of the movie acting awkward or uncomfortable and running from CGI Pokémon threats, and I never got tired of it. After that introductory scene, he learns that his father Harry was apparently killed, and he takes a train ride to Rhyme City to close out his deceased parent’s affairs. Not long after reaching his apartment, he meets Detective Pikachu, who possesses the startling and unique ability to communicate with Tim, and who is amnesiac with only a deerstalker cap imprinted with the detective’s name and address linking him to Harry. Smith’s banter with Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous Pokémon sleuth is consistently fast and witty, and the relationship between Tim and his dad’s old partner Pikachu forms the heart of the movie. That’s a good thing–it’s shocking just how charismatic Reynolds can be as a voice applied to a computer-modeled electric yellow mouse. The effects were wonderful, as well, allowing for the feeling of genuine physical interaction between human and Pokémon, which proved critical for many of the action and character beats.

There’s also a low-level love interest between Tim and newsroom intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who team up to try to uncover the mystery that led to the disappearance of Tim’s dad and a rash of unexplained feral Pokémon attacks. (It just dawned on me in this moment that a good portion of this movie’s plot mirrors that of Zootopia). I’m not familiar with Newton, but I got the impression that she’s a good actor, and her film credits mostly support that. She’s very funny and expressive in this film, and she delivers hilarious lines of dialogue with not just a straight face but an inspired fervor. That said, her character’s not really given that much to do, other than tag along with Tim, exchanging barbs, providing sympathy, and occasionally almost-flirting.

I was impressed by the twists and turns of the detective story, and by the action sequences linking events together. I don’t think it would be too hard to predict at least some of those twists, and a lot of the revelations are dependent upon withholding information from the audience. To be fair, it’s information that the viewpoint characters don’t have, and I at least never felt cheated or bored with the mystery. I’ve never played the game, but reading the Wikipedia page tells me that the story and characters should be familiar to diehard fans, but with plenty of changes to keep them on their toes (and to condense story, tighten the connections between characters, and provide a greater sense of closure). Additionally, while I wasn’t particularly moved by Tim’s complicated family situation, especially given that the movie invested more time in action and comedy than quiet character moments, it provided a clear character arc for Justice Smith to work through (Lucy sadly did not get much of an arc), and the bond that formed between Tim and Detective Pikachu was touching and heartfelt.

It should not be surprising that this film is made for fans of the franchise and nostalgic millennials. But it’s a solid action-comedy movie nonetheless! It actually drops in some rules for the universe to explain how Pokémon and humans interact, making things a little more palatable for a hyper-realistic setting and providing some context for non-fans (there’s one scene early on that’s a bit too exposition-heavy, but it fits the moment). So no one should be unable to track what’s going on, even if they’re not too engaged by the parade of cute-yet-creepy, hyper-real corporate mascots. Despite the narrative friendliness to casual viewers, the film also leans hard into the weirdness of Pokémon, with its bizarre combinations of spirituality and science-fiction. While everything makes sense, I could definitely see those not already invested in the consumer cult of Pokémon finding themselves unwilling or unable to accept the radical events of the third act (thankfully, it’s still grounded in character, and I’m confident that even the most skeptical viewer can still depend on the anchoring bond between Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu).

I also have to note that, while having no impact on the larger film, a small bit of exposition basically establishes some version of the events of the first generation of games (or the anime) as part of the canon of this Detective Pikachu film universe, which is an exciting bit of fan service. Less fan service, but definitely pandering to millennials, is a visual reference to Home Alone when Tim enters Harry’s apartment. I imagine there are other such references to millennial nostalgia that I’m forgetting or just missing.

Detective Pikachu is an entertaining, family-friendly action-mystery movie with a lot of humor. It’s also a great Pokémon movie and an excellent video game adaptation. (It might be the first video game adaptation to actually have a mostly positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for what that’s worth!) For those with kids, and for those who are (or were) fans of the Pokémon franchise, this is a good movie to kick off summer early.

At any rate, between this movie and the Let’s Go games, now’s a great time for lapsed or new Pokémon fans to enter the fold.