I wanna be the very best, like no video game adaptation ever was
Pokemon Detective Pikachu is directed by Rob Letterman and is based on the Pokemon franchise and the 2016 video game Detective Pikachu. The movie stars Ryan Reynolds as the voice and facial motion capture of the titular Pikachu, with Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Ken Watanabe, and Bill Nighy in live-action roles.
The Pokemon franchise was an integral part of my childhood: hours upon hours of playing all the different Pokemon video games, collecting as many Pokemon trading cards as possible, and talking with other close friends who shared the same love and excitement for Pokemon as I did. Yes, indeed: Pokemon was, and still is to this day to some extent, one of the greatest joys my young life has had, so how in the world could I not be excited to see the first real, live-action take on the franchise that has been so world-renowned for almost 25 years? Well, to tell you the truth: I wasn't sure how to feel at first when I saw that Warner Bros. and The Pokemon Company were going to give us our first live-action Pokemon film in 2019. On one hand, I was thrilled that the Pokemon franchise would not settle for the incredibly insular approach that hampered basically all their anime Pokemon films. Y'know, the ones that are like, "Oh? You're not a fan of the show? Well too bad, 'cause we're not gonna take the time to explain what a Pokemon is or who any of these people are!" On the other hand, I was a tad worried because, for many years, I never thought that Pokemon was something that could be pulled off in live-action. Of course, since anything that was ever a popular thing must get a live-action movie nowadays (this November's Sonic the Hedgehog looking to be another momentous low in the history of cinema, and the history of humanity in general), it should have started creeping more into my mind that a live-action Pokemon film was inevitable.
After seeing the film, my exact feelings are...I still don't know. The film did not blow me away and strike my childhood nostalgia in a way that made me want to find an old GameBoy console and start playing Pokemon Red and Blue versions again. At the same time, I thought the film was a reasonable first step in what is likely to be a series of live-action Pokemon films (a sequel to Detective Pikachu is already in the works). One thing I think we can all be happy with though is that Pokemon Detective Pikachu has risen up as the Lord and Savior of the video game movie genre: maligned for years as a toxic, cinematic wasteland and home to some of the worst films to ever grace the silver screen. Finally, the curse has been broken: we have ourselves a good video game movie, and all it took apparently was strong box office results and a decent critical score on Rotten Tomatoes. And while Detective Pikachu can't just wave a magic wand and eliminate any future video game movie flops, it does the heart some good to finally see something succeed after watching it fall flat on its face time and time again.
So then, since Detective Pikachu is not at all like those narrow-minded anime Pokemon films, that must mean that the movie is going to take time to give you an elaborate explanation of what a Pokemon is and how they interact with people, right? Well, unfortunately, no, but you really don't need to have much knowledge of Pokemon to understand the basic plot: in the world of Pokemon, depressed 21-year old Tim Goodman (Smith) receives word that his father, Harry. has died in a car accident. Goodman travels to Ryme City, a bustling metropolis where people and Pokemon live in harmony, to learn the details of Harry's death and to collect the remaining valuables from Harry's Ryme City apartment. In the apartment, Goodman comes across a Pikachu (Reynolds) that is capable of speaking to humans. Actually, that's not quite true: Goodman is the only one who can understand the Pikachu, and thus, the two quickly develop a bond. The Pikachu reveals himself to be a detective who worked alongside Harry, and that the two were working on a case together, when Harry disappeared. Pikachu is also suffering from amnesia, but he is convinced that Harry is still alive, and that a secret plot is in the works: a plot that could threaten people and Pokemon alike. Tim and Pikachu later team up with Ryme City columnist intern Lucy Stevens (Newton) and her trusty Pokemon, Psyduck, as they begin to uncover more clues about where Harry could be and what this secret Ryme City plot is all about.
Pokemon Detective Pikachu largely ignores the Pokemon franchise's two most famous assets: catching Pokemon and using them to fight in battle. While many fans are reasonably upset that the movie is largely devoid of the two things that made people fall in love with Pokemon in the first place, I think the movie still works perfectly fine without either. For one, it saves screenwriters Dani Hernandez, Benji Samit, Letterman, and Derek Connolly a lot of time when it comes to explaining what Pokemon are and why all this catching and battling matters. By adjusting the plot in a way that more-so resembles a mystery in the style of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, audiences everywhere can accept Pokemon as cute, cuddly creatures that exist in the same world as humans, but also understand that they're there because they matter to the plot and its overarching message. The more I think about, the more I feel like Detective Pikachu mirrors a lot of Who Framed Roger Rabbit: something I'm not sure I should find completely charming or somewhat disappointing.
- We all knew Ryan Reynolds voicing Pikachu was going to be the best part of the movie well before its release, and that's exactly what turns out to be true. Reynolds only has to try a little in order to be charming and funny, but here, it is clear that he is all in with the role, seeking out every opportunity imaginable to turn Pikachu into a witty, hard-to-take-seriously Pokemon that never flirts with being annoying. It is completely fair to think of Reynolds' performance as, "He's Deadpool, except without any of the swearing", and what I've always loved about Reynolds' style of humor is not only his impeccable timing, but also that he gets when the joke has reached its maximum potential and doesn't need to go on any longer. Every joke and one-liner from Pikachu feels fresh, and is delivered with such enthusiastic aplomb from Reynolds that it prevents anything else in the movie from putting you in a bad mood.
- It was a struggle for me years ago to think about what Pokemon would look like in live-action, but what I can say now is that the CGI artists and whoever else was involved in the design of Pikachu absolutely nailed it. It is impossible to resist how adorable Pikachu looks: big, doe eyes that look like they could melt any ice-cold heart. Fluffy yellow fur that is smooth and fluid. The design goes so well with Reynolds' voice that the movie is almost worth seeing purely to watch Ryan Reynolds' voice coming out of the mouth of such an expertly crafted Pokemon design, and you sit there in amazement knowing how much it works.
- I wish I could say equally as nice of things to say about all the other Pokemon designs, but, alas, I cannot. While none of the other Pokemon are (thankfully) not scary-looking enough to be nightmare fuel, many are disappointing in that they look rather sloppily put together. Ludicolo, the duck-like Pokemon serving drinks in the bar that Tim and Pikachu go to, looks like an art student's haphazard attempt at creating a sculpture of Cousin It. Charizard, the fire-breathing Pokemon that Pikachu gets into a battle with, looks more like someone in a dirty rubber suit than a menacing lizard creature that can breathe fire. Some of the other Pokemon look perfectly fine, but it's disappointing to see some very recognizable Pokemon not get the same love of craft as Pikachu does. Then again, Pikachu has been the most famous Pokemon ever since the video game series and the TV anime began, so why should anyone be surprised?
- The plot is definitely something that is a bit tough to get your head around. Did I say that Detective Pikachu largely resembles Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Well, for the most part it does, but the plot also combines ingredients from Who Framed Roger Rabbit with ingredients from Zootopia, specifically in how Detective Pikachu borrows the "predatory nature of animals" bit that fueled so much of Zootopia's plot. That being said, the low point is that Detective Pikachu's plot feels largely unoriginal and without a whole lot of creativity, and that's a bummer because I think there is a lot of potential for creativity and thought-provoking story beats in a live-action world of people and Pokemon. How could there not be when there's over 800 (and counting) different kinds of Pokemon? Maybe the sequel(s) will find a way to tap into this creativity. If they can get the right group of CGI artists together, maybe they get the right group of screenwriters together.
I felt obligated to go and see Detective Pikachu right away, even though it is a children's film first and foremost. I've been playing Pokemon and following the franchise for so long that my childhood nostalgia would not let me have it any other way, and I'm glad I was able to leave the theater not at all feeling like I had been offended or betrayed. If Detective Pikachu was going to be yet another clunker in the hapless realm that is the video game movie genre, well, I'm not sure how I would have felt. Detective Pikachu is not a hapless film; it is the first video game movie ever to inspire, dare we say it, hope, for a genre that has never seen anything resembling hope. With Ryan Reynolds' terrific voice work and an equally terrific CGI design for its titular Pokemon, Detective Pikachu sparkles bright. The sparkles are not as bright, however, in some of the other Pokemon designs and in the plot, the latter of which doesn't fully tap into the creative potential to be had in a world of people and Pokemon. The world of Pokemon is so vast that it's next to near impossible to see it all in one movie. Future live-action Pokemon films are sure to follow though, so I'm sure there will be more to see whenever those films come out. For right now though, Pokemon superfans and the video game movie genre should be happy. For Pokemon superfans, Warner Bros. and The Pokemon Company found a way to successfully bring Pokemon to the world of live-action. For the video game genre, Detective Pikachu could mean that better days are ahead.
Recommend? Yes. I'd say this movie is a must-see of you love and adore Pokemon.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: