Review: “Pokémon Detective Pikachu”

I have been a fan of the Pokémon franchise pretty much since the very beginning. Few franchises have defined my life and sense of nostalgia more. I still love the games, the cards, and yes even the television show from time to time as well as the numerous animated films the series has offered. Like many fans, I was cautiously optimistic to hear that one of the franchise’s more recent and obscure video games would be translated into a live action movie. Enter “Pokémon Detective Pikachu”! As a fan, going into this movie with a critical eye was almost tougher than it was with “Avengers: Endgame” but considering the poor track record of video game movies, the fact that the director, Robert Thomas, was responsible for some of my least favorite kid-friendly films of the last two decades like “Monsters vs. Aliens”, “Shark Tale” and “Gulliver’s Travels” and the always entertaining but strangely cast Ryan Reynolds voicing the titular character, “Detective Pikachu” immediately offered plenty that could potentially have gone wrong. That’s a long way of me saying that “Detective Pikachu” had to earn my respect even though I am a huge fan of the franchise. So how well did it accomplish that? Let’s find out. This is my review of “Pokémon Detective Pikachu”.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu”, which I’ll just call “Detective Pikachu”, follows failed Pokémon trainer Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) who is struggling to find his place in the world. Tim’s mother died when he was young and he has lived with his grandmother while his father, a private investigator, has lived in Ryme City, a peaceful place where Pokémon and humans live side by side instead of separated and where battling is outlawed. After his father’s apparent untimely death Tim heads to Ryme City eventually meeting a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who reveals he was Tim’s father’s Pokémon partner. Despite clashing at first, the two eventually bond and discover clues that hint that Tim’s father survived. Joined by aspiring journalist Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck, Tim and Pikachu unravel a conspiracy that could compromise the peaceful existence of Ryme City and change the relationship between people and Pokémon forever.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

So, I’m just going to come right out with it. I didn’t hate it. I actually very much enjoyed this movie and thank God too because I was extremely worried I’d be let down. I mean, don’t get me wrong, “Detective Pikachu” has its flaws that I’ll touch on farther down but overall I was completely engaged, entertained and engrossed the whole runtime of the film. One of the coolest aspects of “Detective Pikachu” is how effectively it brings you into the world of Pokémon. Everything from the style to the technology and the architecture in this movie made me feel like I was watching a true Pokémon product, not to mention seeing all of the CGI rendered Pokémon come to life. I will admit some of the computer animation isn’t that convincing, but this allows for characters that are much closer to their animated counterparts and still feel very alive. Pikachu and the other Pokémon all look really close to what we’re used to seeing on the small screen and video games and some, like Gengar, Lickitung, and Charizard, even have some aesthetic changes that help make them feel even more alive. There’s a lot of imagination put into this movie to help capture the child friendly visual style of the source material while still attempting to create something you could see existing in the real world. Even subtle changes, like not having every Pokémon speak by saying their name, might seem like blasphemous abuse of creative license on the surface but they actually help make this world even more believable. It’s just fantastic how well this movie captures the essence and style of the Pokémon world. My inner ten-year-old couldn’t take it. I was grinning from ear to ear. I finally got to see the world of Pokémon respectfully translated to live action.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

The cast isn’t half bad either. While at first Ryan Reynolds might seem like an odd choice to play Pikachu, he does a fine job of it. Pikachu is still adorable and fun, but Reynolds’ performance gives this particular Pikachu a dash of maturity and wisdom while also keeping his personality innocent and charming. It’s just enough Ryan Reynolds quirkiness to keep both adults and children entertained without going so far over the edge that Pikachu becomes annoying or unbearable. The human characters are fun too and play off of their Pokémon partners quite well. Justice Smith is a great leading man as the self-loathing Tim Goodman while Kathryn Newton hams it up a little as aspiring journalist Lucy Stevens even capturing some of the anime vibe all-too-present in the characters on the show. What’s more impressive though is how much the older cast embraced this film. There are some very experienced performers involved in this movie including Reynolds, Bill Nighy, and Ken Watanabe who are way beyond the Pokémon craze in terms of age demographic. Even if any of these men were aware of or even fans of the show it was still fun seeing some older Hollywood actors put a lot of effort into making a film based on a kid-focused video game. Everyone feels like they’re genuinely into it and enjoying the experience and the charisma bleeds off the screen and had a huge impact on how much I enjoyed this film.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Looking at the story this is where the film had its ups and downs. On the positive side “Detective Pikachu” does a fine job blending comedy, sincerity and action allowing the famous pocket monsters to shine while never forsaking the human characters. There’s a nice blend between very human experiences and that no-holds-barred Pokémon action we love from the games and show. At its heart this is a movie about having the confidence in yourself to take risks and find your place in the world and this is explored through the partnership between Tim and Pikachu who have to learn where they fit in the puzzle of life, Tim because he feels defeated and Pikachu because he’s lost his memory. It’s a neat and unique take on the “partnership” aspect of Pokémon and truly embraces that “you teach me and I’ll teach you” line that rings so truly in the famous theme song. There’s plenty of substance for adults and plenty of fun for the kids. Even if you’re not really a fan of Pokémon or “don’t get it” this movie offers enough for newbies to follow the plot and understand how its world works and gives something to appreciate even if this isn’t your franchise of choice. And if you just want to sit back and enjoy how well this world captures the spirit of its source material that’s fine too because there’s plenty to embrace for sure.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

But then there’s the downside and that’s “Detective Pikachu’s” convoluted finale and cliché-ridden story structure. A lot of the elements of this film were clearly simplified for the sake of the target age demographic, which is to be expected, but it’s still hard to overlook the fact that “Detective Pikachu” doesn’t exactly try very hard to chart new ground in terms of dramatic storytelling. You still have the emotional breakup moment, the mismatched partners trope and a bunch of other clichés that are sadly very obvious and easy to pick out as the story progresses all of them we’ve seen before. Even still there are some neat twists, including the truth behind why Tim can understand Pikachu and revelations about Tim’s father disappearing, that are actually very delightful additions to a predictable, if fun, narrative and add some creativity to the story. However, the real twist comes in the finale when we discover the grand overarching plan of the surprise villain. This is where the movie jumps the shark and gives us an insanely odd scheme that adds a new element to the partnership between Pokémon and humans. It didn’t ruin the film for me by any means, but it did feel a bit out of left field even for a series where the plans of the numerous evil teams have become more and more…shall I say fanatical and extreme over the years. I feel like there could have been a better way to wrap things up and maybe even a simpler version of the villain’s plan that would have sufficed. In the end though it’s best not to go into “Detective Pikachu” without a certain suspension of disbelief anyway.

Screen Shot Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In conclusion, “Detective Pikachu” is thankfully a very good movie. Aside from “Endgame” it’s probably the most fun I’ve had at the theater all year from an entertainment perspective. As a fan of the series I can say I was extremely impressed at how well the world of Pokemon was captured in this film. It was immersive, fun, entertaining, touching, funny, and not only respected the source material but fully embraced it in nearly every aspect of its being. It’s not without its faults though. The story is pretty predictable and the finale is quite an odd twist that takes things maybe a bit too far even by this franchise’s standards, but in the end “Detective Pikachu” is all about having fun and trying to leave a lasting impression on its mixed audience of easily entertained youngsters and long-time millennial fans. When looked at from that perspective it mostly accomplishes its purpose and then some. It also shows that video games CAN make for decent movies if the filmmakers and the performers make a conscious effort not to change everything to fit live action but to use live action as a way of building on the presentation and immersion. “Detective Pikachu” is a rare treat for today’s world as it serves as a respectable adaptation of a much-beloved franchise while taking a few risks along the way even if they don’t always work. If this is the future of Pokémon on the big screen I can’t wait to see what happens next.

GRADE:A five-star rating

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