Understandably, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu wants to be the very best video game movie, like no other one ever was. To catch the right filmmaking ideas is the real test, and delivering them to a pleased audience is the film’s cause. As an audience, we’ve gone through many years, across many properties, searching far and wide. But only recently has film come to understand the power that’s inside putting the movie first, and the IP second. So here it is, Detective Pikachu, it mostly has it all, the best video game movie that has come to be. Whether that applies to just you or me, I know this may have been our destiny.
Seriously, leave it to Warner Bros., Legendary Pictures, The Pokémon Company, and Toho to come together for the sake of a live-action adventure staring Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and Justice Smith, as an unlikely pair looking to solve a mystery involving a missing person, drug distribution, and a bio-engineered Pokémon that could endanger all of the others. There’s a level of complexity here that’s not too far off from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in spirit, but even while Detective Pikachu doesn’t rise to the quality of that Robert Zemeckis-directed classic, this Pokémon movie does have a handle on what’s needed to tackle this enormously popular franchise properly.
Director Rob Letterman and his team have done great work in making a film that brings in plenty of spectacle, throwing the audience into a world populated by humans and pocket monsters alike, without feeling burdened by explaining every aspect of it. Having never been a rabid fan of Pokémon myself (I’m mainly familiar with certain characters thanks to the Super Smash Brothers games and pop culture osmosis), I was delighted with the way we come to understand the aspects that matter about this introduction to a cinematic universe, with the fan-pleasing stuff resting comfortably on the sidelines. For every sight gag featuring a Jigglypuff, Charmander, or Squirtle, you have the right amount of time spent understanding necessary creatures such as Charizard, Bulbasaur, or Mr. Mime. And if all of that still sounds like nonsense, this film has plenty of fun thanks to its character focus.
Smith star as Tim Goodman, once an aspiring Pokémon trainer, only to become a loner living outside of the metropolis known as Ryme City. He makes a trip back into town after hearing news of his father’s disappearance. Estranged from his son and working as a detective, Tim’s father, Harry, had a Pikachu as his Pokémon partner (most humans have one). Upon meeting each other, Tim and Pikachu discover they can understand one another, despite how all other humans merely here Pokémon speaking in their creature language (which is just the creatures saying their name). Along with other reasons, these two team up looking to solve a mystery that only becomes more exciting the deeper they go.
Keep in mind, this is a family-friendly feature, and while it tells a story about loss, friendship, and figuring out what kind of person you want to be, it’s also a fun buddy comedy about a young man and his Pokémon. It leads to a series of fun set pieces balanced by the bond that forms between Tim and Pikachu. Not hurting is the solid supporting cast and the desire for Letterman to deliver a film that feels like something worth the time of an intrigued audience, as opposed to merely a snazzy way to package Pokémon in a new way to sell the property.
In addition to Smith and Reynolds, the film features Kathryn Newton as Lucy Stevens, a young reporter looking for a scoop. Paired with a Psyduck (a Pokémon with stress issues), Lucy occasionally teams up with Tim to provide some fun support. A couple of veteran actors pop in as well, adding more credibility to the film. Bill Nighy plays Howard Clifford, a visionary who helped build Ryme City. And then there’s Ken Watanabe as Detective Hideo Yoshida, a friend of Harry’s who tries to help out Tim best he can. That’s all well and good, but seeing Watanabe in a detective hat with his Snubbull as a partner makes me want a whole spin-off detective show about their adventures. It speaks to the likability of a film like this.
There may not be too many wrinkles in the familiar story being told, but I was very much into the presentation of this world. The film wisely starts small, as we watch Tim attempt to capture a Pokémon, only to expand the cinematic conception on display. By the time we get to the very Blade Runner-inspired city, seeing Pokémon performing everyday jobs, and watching underground matches all play well thanks to tremendous work from the visual effects department. The film has just the right feel for how to incorporate these characters, without being overwhelming. Even in the action-heavy (and slightly overlong, yet rushed) third act, I had a good awareness of the Pokémon being presented and how they affect what we are seeing.
None of this would be worthwhile without the two stars of the film. Reynolds may have seemed like an off-putting choice (especially for all of those who had championed Danny DeVito for years), but his smarmy attitude ends up working well for the adorable electric mouse. The witty lines are naturally underplayed compared to Reynolds’ work in the Deadpool films, but it allows for a good amount of irreverence.
More notable is Justice Smith, who shows a terrific knack for being able to carry a film and interacting primarily with CG characters. That’s no small task for a young actor, but Smith brings a solid screen presence, physical humor, and emotion to a role that separates him from other similar genre films that have little to offer outside spectacle or the novelty of bringing a property to life.
While I won’t say this film is surprisingly good, as the previews were quite promising, I can say I’m happy Detective Pikachu delivers as well as it does. It’s enough for the film to rise to the top of the list of video game movies (even if there weren’t too many previous contenders), but more importantly, it’s just a good movie. Detective Pikachu is smart enough to put the characters first, clever enough to find a fitting way to incorporate plenty of Pokémon as a way to please fans without exhausting newcomers, and knows what’s best as far as being a fun summer movie for all to enjoy. Pikachu may be a little furry gumshoe, but as a lead in a comedy-sci-fi-mystery, there’s plenty he and his fellow Pokémon bring to the stadium.