Detective Pikachu is the first feature-length attempt to realize the world of Pokémon in live action. That’s long been considered a difficult prospect as Pokémon’s chief selling point is the menagerie of cuddly anime creatures who generally can’t deliver any dialogue apart from their own names. The human characters are blank slates inhabited by player personalities and the action is focused on a competitive fighting league for the aforementioned creatures that dominates much of the fictional world’s culture. It can be hard to get into if you haven’t already been invested in the world since the ‘90s Game Boy era.
Detective Pikachu’s novel solution is to kick off what the producers are (clearly) hoping will be an entire live-action Pokémon universe with an adaptation of a spin-off game that featured a more defined protagonist. Ryan Reynolds voices an atypical version of the most popular variety of Pokémon who can speak full sentences. The film also primarily takes place in a city where the video game-like part of the Pokémon experience is more backgrounded so it more closely resembles something like reality but with Pokémon.
It’s easy to see why it was assumed this was the best approach to deliver an engaging story within the game/anime continuity. It provides plenty of opportunities to depict popular Pokémon while also serving as an entry point for general audiences. Though having experienced the film with an audience of Pokemaniacs, I wonder if the filmmakers accounted for general audiences being unable to actually hear any of the plot, dialogue or even ambient noise over the thunderous sound of excited younger fans pointing and shouting the names of their favorite Pokémon when a new one appears on screen every 30 seconds.
Detective Pikachu may be the best video game movie ever made. It’s easily the best based on a popular contemporary title and certainly the best one that doesn’t star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Outside that low bar it suffers from many of the same issues as other modern franchise blockbusters. The second act is overly dominated by a perfunctory MacGuffin hunt that’s not as strong as the promising first act, the finale is visually exciting but somewhat detached and feels like it expects its likeable characters and long-term brand building to do most of the legwork. But as a family action-comedy, it’s more than solid. As a Pokémon fan-service generator, it performs with energy output something akin to a supernova.
As a family action-comedy, it’s more than solid. As a Pokémon fan-service generator, it performs with energy output something akin to a supernova.
The film is best described in both stylistic and thematic terms as a neon-infused crossbreed of Blade Runner, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Zootopia by way of The Muppets and Hideaki Anno. The story follows Justice Smith as a jaded one time would-be Pokémon trainer named Tim traveling to Ryme City to settle the affairs of his estranged father, a police detective who died under suspicious circumstances. Pokémon battles and capture are off-limits in the London-esque megalopolis and the creatures walk the streets with essentially the same freedom of movement as humans or at least well thought-of animal companions.
After a chance encounter with his late dad’s Pikachu partner, Tim discovers that he (but only he) can understand what the Pokémon is saying as English rather than typical “Pokémon speak.” Detective Pikachu is suffering from near-total amnesia but the two decide to work together to retrace Tim’s father’s last case to find answers to their mutual questions. They gradually uncover a conspiracy involving underground Pokémon fight leagues, a dangerous street drug that turns tame Pokémon feral, a mysterious research facility conducting illegal experiments, and the involvement of a game character who has been shown in some trailers but whose appearance in the film still drew audible gasps at my screening.
The film is at its best when it’s finding reasons for Detective Pikachu and the various other Pokémon to simply exist in the frame, interacting with their world and each other. While the film delivers a serviceable but not precisely riveting neo-noir mystery story, your level of engagement will roughly equate to how deeply you’re invested in the nuances of Pokémon Universe worldbuilding and how few other science fiction detective stories you’ve seen before this.
The CGI animation for the Pokémon themselves, while not uniformly perfect all looks great in motion. That’s especially true for Pikachu himself, who’s so instantly compelling and expressive yet real-feeling in the scene it’s often jarring to remember you aren’t looking at a physical puppet or living animal of some kind. Reynolds’ voice, while distinctly his inflection, is also very much a wholly different performance from his laconic live-action turns or his largely faceless role as Deadpool. Here he’s inhabiting a vulnerable and often existentially sad character who functions like a defensively sarcastic Jiminy Cricket. He has winning chemistry with Smith, who also has cute scenes opposite Kathryn Newton, who plays a reporter whose story goes to a more real place than you might expect.
While the plot isn’t overly original, the way the big bad guy’s plan is realized is pretty bonkers and makes for some memorably wacky visuals involving the various creatures on hand. At least one really unlikely Pokémon turns out to be straight-up nightmare fuel when its abilities are realized in live action. A big set piece fight between Pikachu and the final big bad should send fans up the wall. Prior to that there’s a very cool, nearly abstract scene showing off just how strange the wild territory of these animals can actually be. There’s also at least one battle scene that suggests a traditional Pokémon movie is more than feasible and is sure to increase the demand for one.
Detective Pikachu is far from perfect and more than a little silly. While I don’t know if it’s the Iron Man of video game movies, it’s the closest contender for that title in awhile. For now, it’s a lot of fun and a terrific live action debut for the Pokémon franchise.