Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, 2019.
Directed by Rob Letterman.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere, Suki Waterhouse, Josette Simon, Rita Ora, Karan Soni, Diplo, Omar Chaparro, and Rob Delaney.
In a world where people collect Pokémon to do battle, a boy comes across an intelligent talking Pikachu who seeks to be a detective.
Pretty much every time a video game adaptation releases, most viewers find themselves questioning if the filmmakers involved have ever had any experience playing it, so it’s a surprise that Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is more than just concerned with the bond between trainer and adorable mythological creature, it actually lifts elements and terminology directly from the games in ways that gel well within the structure of a movie. Simultaneously, a paying casual audience should not need massive amounts of knowledge to understand any of the above, so it’s also important to note that the movie does a good job making all of this accessible whether they are familiar with Pokémon or not.
A brief introduction of longtime friends Tim and Jack (Justice Smith and Karan Soni respectively) show off the basics to catching Pokémon, explains the friendship they can provide, and dazzles with the live-action CGI hybrid world populated by humans and Pokémon. There is also a metropolis known as Ryme City which is a little bit different; here, there is no such thing as capturing Pokémon or partaking in tournaments and having them battle one another (it’s definitely a bit shocking and absolutely admirable that the film somewhat addresses the fact that its kind of morally wrong to do so, even if it doesn’t outright draw a comparison between something like cockfighting), but rather a utopia similar to Zootopia where the species co-exist as equals. Pokémon battling here is actually conducted via illegal underground dens, seemingly similar to animal abuse even if the movie never really goes there.
Rather than jump right into sleuthing shenanigans, Goosebumps director Rob Letterman’s adaptation (yes, there is actually a game called Detective Pikachu, and while I have played many of the games, collected cards all throughout my childhood, and distinctly remember happy memories watching the cartoon as a child before school, somehow I have never played that one, meaning I am unable to speak on straight comparisons) wisely focuses on some slight world building first. Many establishing shots early on are blatant excuses to shove in as many Pokémon as possible onto the screen serving as both fan service and nostalgia, but occasionally there are glimpses of things like a Squirtle putting out a fire or a Charmander aiding a chef that both really add to a sense of thriving community and togetherness. Some of the appearances are definitely done as subtle Easter Eggs (the placement of Snorlax is no coincidence), but it’s clear that the utopia concept was taken to heart and executed with thought instead of solely as a way to display em’ all, so to speak.
Unfortunately, while all of this is going on, the mystery tone of Tim investigating the disappearance of his father and learning the details from the police chief (Ken Watanabe), complete with downer dialogue regarding his complicated relationship to his presumed dead dad, and the noirish moody neon lighting that continuously changes colors multiple times over the course of any given conversation, all feels at odds with the charming and lighthearted tone of Pokémon. Soon, Tim heads to his father’s address and stumbles upon his Pikachu partner that now has amnesia. Somehow, they can communicate with one another via English, prompting the two to team up and solve the case, albeit reluctantly as Tim somewhat resents Pokémon for taking up so much of his father’s time and work that they were never really able to maintain a good relationship after mom tragically died.
The hyperactive voice of Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu gives the proceedings some levity and plenty of humor, and while his overall interactions with Tim are amusing, that doesn’t stop the plot from going through a number of predictable twists, some of which even kids should be able to catch on to fairly quickly. Luckily, there are also one or two revelations that are slightly less foreshadowed. For as much fun as watching these two go around interrogating various Pokémon is (the segment with Mr. Mime is gold), it also suffers from the fact that they are learning things the audience already knows from either being told directly or being able to catch on. It also doesn’t help that the villain is the most obvious suspect, complemented by a performance chewing the scenery when the script calls for it. The duo also joins forces with Lucy, a journalistic reporter (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck companion, with her upbeat personality and animated line delivery feeling more in line with Pokémon than any other character in the movie. Not only is her presence always welcome, but Psyduck has a few scene-stealing moments including a sequence inside of a forest that shows off his abilities before building into something even more exciting and spectacular.
Normally, whenever movies about fantasy species or major threats are churned out through the Hollywood system, the human characters that are injected into the stories and often placed at the forefront are fairly forgettable, and while I’m not going to say that any of them here have great depth, it is easy to invest in their plight. This is made all the more intriguing when events leading to the final battle cause it to take place almost entirely between Pokémon, practically playing out like a fight from one of the games. Smartly, the bond between trainer and Pokémon is expanded upon more, once again eliciting a sensation that the filmmakers really want to evoke parallels to the actual gameplay.
That probably won’t mean anything to anyone unfamiliar with Pokémon, but Detective Pikachu is still a lightning bolt of fun for those that enjoy adorable creatures, an entertaining if predictable mystery, and Ryan Reynolds being Ryan Reynolds as a caffeine-addicted yellow rodent capable of summoning electricity. It definitely stumbles out of the gate (likely due to so many writers attached), but quickly levels up and evolves over time into a winner.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com