Detective Pikachu is a fun and charming popcorn flick that will delight Pokemon fans and engage even those who are unfamiliar with the franchise. Having now seen it twice, I rate it 3.5 out of 4 stars! The film is loosely based on 2016’s Detective Pikachu video game.
The movie follows Tim Goodman, a 21 year old insurance worker who learns his estranged father died in a car accident. To put his father’s affairs in order, Tim visits Ryme City, a place where humans and Pokemon live in harmony. At his father’s apartment, Tim runs into his father’s partner Pokemon, a Pikachu who only he can understand (voiced by Ryan Reynolds, of course). From there the duo joins a news intern named Lucy and her Psyduck. Lucy is suspicious of Harry Goodman’s death and odd occurrences in the city, and the characters soon stubble into a conspiracy.
The film takes the Pokemon concept and presents it through a relatable “real world” story that tries to keep the minutia of the Pokemon world to a minimum. Unlike the TV show, Pokemon battles are not the focus of this film, nor is capturing Pokemon. Pokemon attacks aren’t even mentioned by name until half-way through the film (Pikachu can’t even use them). It is clear from the get-go that the film’s purpose is to “ease” audiences in to the idea of a Pokemon cinematic universe. It makes sense too — video game movies have historically bombed, and the Pokemon world can be overly complicated to the uninitiated. In this way, Legendary’s “conservative” approach allows the Pokemon world to be accessible to all audiences without burdened them with its mechanics. (Once this film introduces mainstream audiences to the Pokemon world, I’m sure we’ll see more traditional Pokemon films in the future.)
The three leads are fun to watch — Tim is sarcastic and irreverent, Lucy is strong and ambitious, and Detective Pikachu is… Detective Pikachu. He isn’t just a quip machine that you want to shut up after a certain point, the filmmakers know when to use him and never push him to the point of annoyance. He also exhibits a full range of emotions, which might not have been apparent from the trailers. At one point he comforts Tim, who’s crying about his failed relationship with his father. Ryan Reynolds is owed a great debt for bringing so much life to the character and the film overall. Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton always nail their scenes too, which is all the more impressive when you consider they were interacting with puppets and thin air. Some of the minor characters don’t always have as great of a “handle” on the Pokemon world, unfortunately. You sometimes get a sense that they don’t really understand the lines coming out of their mouth.
The film has moments you wouldn’t expect from a traditional Pokemon movie, where you go, “I can’t believe they just said / did that.” You’re not watching this movie just to enjoy it as a story, the filmmakers clearly understand we are watching it under the real-world context of “How are you guys going to do a live action Pokemon movie?” Pikachu makes some veiled sex jokes that will fly over the heads of children. We see flashbacks to Tim’s childhood showing his troubled feelings with his father. For this movie it’s clear The Pokemon Company eased up on their franchise’s “cutesy” image, allowing the filmmakers to push Pokemon’s traditional boundaries and go darker for mainstream appeal (although the movie is still very cutesy, of course!).
The film goes out of its way to avoid some of the longterm criticism of the Pokemon franchise, which was likely a choice by The Pokemon Company. You don’t capture a Cubone by beating it to a pulp with your Pokemon, it has to “accept” you LGPE-style. Pokemon attacks are mentioned in passing but are usually referred to as a Pokemon’s “powers.” Pokemon battling is seen in a negative light and is banned in Ryme City. TPC clearly wanted to avoid controversy for their first foray into a live action film. They did the same thing with Mewtwo Strikes Back, trying to explain (a rather conflicting message) that Pokemon shouldn’t fight each other. So in this film they just try to avoid the cockfighting whenever possible. I did like how they tried to promote some of Pokemon’s positive concepts that aren’t always put into words in the TV show, such as that Pokemon can feel what we are feeling even if we can’t understand them.
The story itself is not groundbreaking. You may be able to figure it out within the first 20 to 30 minutes (although there are some plot points you won’t see coming). But I think the plot needs to be “familiar” in order for audiences to absorb this Pokemon world. When you bring a huge franchise like this to the big screen, you have to be cautious and strategic if you want there to be more films in the future. So in my opinion it’s forgivable for this film as long as future Pokemon films show a little more ambition. Pokemon is a rich world full of myths and legends and it will be a shame if they don’t capitalize on that in the future. (They should hire me to write one! :p)
At times the plot can get a touch corny. There’s a long exposition scene toward the beginning of the film that lazily dumps a bunch of concepts about Pokemon, showing what looks like fanart of the Pokemon. This isn’t a “grounded” Christopher Nolan film, of course, and no one should expect that. The ending of the film also gets a bit laughable/silly/cartoony when the villainous plot comes to fruition. Luckily the main actors approach any corny material as seriously as they can, which takes some of that cringe away.
The movie will get emotional for longtime fans. When we see certain scenes, like Mewtwo’s eyes glowing in the dark, you can’t help but feel giddy that we finally have a live action Pokemon film after 20+ years. Like Marvel fans, part of the emotion of this film is the fact it exists. That won’t be something general audiences will feel or understand, as they don’t have that nostalgic connection to the material.
Some of the CG Pokemon get copied and pasted a noticeable number of times throughout the film. There was a part where I said “If I see one more Treecko…” and then it showed up two more times within minutes. I think they needed 20% more Pokemon in the film or should have distributed the models better. It seems they only had 50 to work with. Most of the Pokemon look fantastic, by the way. When I saw the original cut of the film last October, that was the first thing that hit me — “oh, I wasn’t expecting that kind of look, but I like it!”
Sometimes the movie moves a little too fast to process, making some of the internal “rules” a little hard to follow (“wait who can understand Pikachu again?”). The jokes go by so fast that you may miss details, but that’s okay since we’ll all be watching it a hundred times when the home video comes out. The uninitiated may get confused in places, but not to a degree where they can’t follow what’s going on. For example, there’s a small bit where Ditto transforms into a human. In a Pokemon world where anything is possible and every type of “power” is represented, it may get frustrating to the uninitiated that they can’t immediately understand what each Pokemon does or what they should expect from them.
As a fan, I was confused by where this movie is supposed to be taking place canon-wise. For example, the film has references to the anime like it’s part of that canon, but then there’s also real-world Pokemon cards. The film also has posters of Legendary Pokemon and mentions at least one Mythical Pokemon, but most Pokemon stories act like those Pokemon are a secret to most people. Pikachu sings the original Pokemon theme song at one point, but how could he know that song if their story is part of the anime world? So I think we’re just supposed to accept this film under the real-world context that it’s a live action Pokemon film Hollywood is making that is trying to appeal to fans with its references. As in, “don’t examine the internal logic of it.”
Detective Pikachu is a blast from beginning to end. It is impossible not to enjoy this film, not to laugh, and not to be amazed by what Legendary and The Pokemon Company have accomplished here. At the end of the day it’s not yet a serious attempt at bringing a true Pokemon story to the big screen, but that’s okay for now. For what it is, and what it was trying to accomplish, I give it a 3.5 out of 4 stars. However, I expect more ambition going forward. It’ll be difficult to make a story that appeals to both general audiences and fans that simultaneously capitalizes on the mythos of the Pokemon world. But that’s the challenge of making good films, isn’t it?
(Note: I was invited to watch Detective Pikachu last October to give feedback to the filmmakers, and was then invited by Warner Bros. to an advance screening of the film this week. If anyone is interested, I will post some potentially interesting changes between the first cut of the film and the final version once everyone has seen it.)