Pokémon fans have had years of films based on the hit series, following the adventures of Ash Ketchum and his pal Pikachu. Legendary Pictures acquired the rights to the phenomenon and decided to take a chance in the live action space. Fans were skeptical, especially when it was announced that the film would be based on the Detective Pikachu 3DS game. Even more so when it was announced that Ryan Reynolds would play the title character. Despite this, thanks to some clever marketing, Pokémon Detective Pikachu managed to change the perceptions of the masses. The final result is a charming, yet strange film for fans of the Pokémon franchise.
The film stars Justice Smith as Tim Goodman, a young insurance salesman that prefers to keep to himself. Constantly encouraged to get a partner Pokémon, he takes the stubborn approach and prefers to focus on his career path. When he gets a call telling him that his father, Harry Goodman, has been killed, he makes his way to Ryme City, where his father lived, to gain closure. After a little extra exposition and a visit to his fathers apartment, he soon comes face to face with a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) that he can fully understand. Convinced that Harry is still alive, the two end up in an unlikely partnership to try to uncover the truth.
Without going into too many spoilers, a lot of the conflict involves an experimental drug known as “R”. The gaseous purple substance, when inhaled by a Pokémon, makes them temporarily aggressive. This is quickly discovered when Tim comes across a vial of R in Harry’s apartment, effecting a group of nearby Aipom. The Aipom go on the offensive, attacking Tim and Pikachu, going through an extensive chase sequence till the drug eventually wears off. If you’re sitting here reading this review asking yourself what an Aipom is, then you’re likely not a Pokémon fan. Sadly, for those that aren’t Pokémon fans, this movie may not have much for you.
What Pokémon Detective Pikachu excels in is a magical sense of world building. Pokémon of all species and types are scattered all throughout the world, practically demanding your attention in any scene they’re a part of. With over 800 Pokémon, newcomers to the series may find that they don’t recognize many of the creatures. Luckily, a good amount of the Pokémon in the film are from the original 151 from over 20 years ago. Cubone, Mr. Mime, Squirtle, Bulbasaur, and especially Psyduck all have extensive screentime. This makes it easy for those familiar with the first generation to find some comfort. That being said, there are also plenty of newer generation Pokémon, such as Greninja, Morelull and Pancham.
The Pokémon really steal the show, especially when focused on Reynolds’ portrayal as Detective Pikachu himself. Taking a little bit of his personality from the Deadpool films, Reynolds performs well as a 1′ 04″ electric mouse addicted to caffeine. Not only does he bring in a lot of laughs, but his realistic character design is incredibly adorable. Pikachu expresses a wide array of emotions, and when combined with Reynolds’ charm, makes the character come to life. Despite all this, the character is more Ryan Reynolds than Pokémon, as the character has lost his memories, even forgetting how to battle. This makes for an interesting dynamic where Tim must rely solely on Pikachu’s detective skills and ability to communicate with other Pokémon.
Getting to the design of the other creatures, the majority of them are more or less successful. Any Pokémon utilizing fur manages to look pretty good on screen. Some of the ones with more of a skin-like texture tend to have a harder time blending in. A Pokémon like Machamp seems to stick out like a sore thumb while a Snubbull looks almost like a practical effect. Overall, the creatures appear lifelike enough to fit into the world, even if only a couple actually pull it off fully. Pikachu and Psyduck are easily some of the best looking in the film due to their lifelike interactions.
Moving away from the Pokémon, the actual human actors in the film do well enough with the writing. Justice Smith does well to portray an awkward young adult, especially when he’s on screen with his co-star, Kathryn Newton, who plays Lucy Stevens, an intern with the local news station. The chemistry between Smith and Newton tends to bring a lot of laughs, but they never fully quite connect. Bill Nighy plays Howard Clifford, the founder of a large corporation and the one who came up with the concept for Ryme City. It’s not anywhere near Nighy’s best role, but given the amount of time he’s on screen, he does well enough. Ken Watanabe also plays Detective Yoshida, demanding a strong presence whenever he’s in a scene.
While the first half of the film is easy enough to follow and works well, the second half has some issues. The plot starts off with a film noir/mystery vibe but eventually injects anime insanity into your brain. One sequence feels like it’s ripped out of Inception and doesn’t quite work with the movie. While the twists are difficult to see coming, it’s mostly because the actual reveals are just that ridiculous. At a certain point, it’s just best to not care about the plot and just focus on the laughs. Even with the narrative issues, the film still has a lot of heart. Throughout the entirety of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, the film emphasizes the strength of a bond between friends, or even partnership. It really drives it home, only to drop it off a block before the destination due to the strange ending.
As mentioned before, this film was made with the fanbase in mind. The movie knows how to cater to fans and it excels in that regard. Tons of Easter eggs, musical references and cameos are packed into this fan service filled movie. Ryme City itself is a metropolis of Pokémon related shops and companies. It would likely take multiple viewings for eagle-eyed fans to spot every reference. Casual viewers may feel a little left out, only finding enjoyment from Reynolds’ humorous quips. I’m reminded of when I viewed Pokémon 3: The Movie’s short, Pikachu & Pichu, with my stepdad years ago. He turned to me after about two minutes of “pika pika” and said “this is the movie?” Obviously, it wasn’t, but to him, it might as well have been.
All in all, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a step in the right direction for video game movies. While it might not be my favorite video game film, there is a lot of potential with this franchise. Legendary has already announced that a sequel is in the works, so only time will tell. It serves Pokémon fans well and builds a believable world with the source material. While it might not be friendly for those not acquainted with the pocket monsters, Reynolds’s Pikachu tends to keep the movie fun. The plot may not be perfect, but it tell the story it wants to for better or worse. At least fans of the 3DS game won’t go in already knowing the plot, as the movie goes in a different direction.