Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu
October 1999: Pokémon Yellow releases in the US for the Gameboy Color. Earlier that year, my dad bought me The Smurfs' Nightmare, a platformer game featuring...Smurfs. So, you can imagine that Pokémon Yellow was a welcome change. I have played every Pokémon game since (well not including Pokémon Ranger, because what even are those). Twenty years later, the first ever live action Pokémon movie is here and fortunately for Talk Film Society, they have a goddamned Pokémon Master on the editing team. That’s me. I’m the PokéMaster.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is an adaptation of the 2018 3DS game of the same name. Although it isn’t a faithful adaptation, not that I’ve played it, the game and film both feature Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith in the film) and Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) as the central characters. The film and video game follows Tim and Detective Pikachu as they solve the mystery behind the “R” drug, a chemical that is causing otherwise peaceful Pokémon to become enraged and confused. Remember Zootopia? Yeah, like that. At the same time, they are following clues to piece together what happened to Tim’s missing father, Harry Goodman. Harry was a Detective in the idyllic Ryme City, where Pokémon and Humans lived side-by-side. Like Zootopia.
Let’s just get this out of the way. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is good. It’s better than it should be, at least. Simply the adaptation of hand-drawn, highly recognizable creatures to realistic CGI film screen counterparts shows that this film was made with care. Sure, we picked on how some of these characters looked with fur and flesh at first, but I can honestly say most of them looked great on screen. Well, except for Gengar. In a fairly extended battle scene, Gengar looks like something out of the first Ghostbusters movie, except more purple.
Detective Pikachu begins as a true noir and you can't help but make comparisons to Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Both emulate the best of film noir while also featuring a backdrop of nostalgia and familiar animated characters. Much like Roger Rabbit, the Pokémon of Detective Pikachu blend in to a much more serious story. Our central character, Tim, is a serious young man, dealing with recent news that his father died in a car accident and the loss of his mother when he was younger. And, like Eddie Valiant, Tim Goodman doesn’t really participate in the “silliness” of the world around him. Multiple times people call him lonely and ask why he doesn’t have a Pokémon partner.
As the mystery unravels, Detective Pikachu’s noir themes change drastically. About halfway through, the film unveils itself to be set in the same world as 1998's Pokémon: The First Movie. This is fairly subtle, seeing that Detective Pikachu's marketing campaign featured the infamous Mewtwo character in its later marketing, so audiences shouldn't be too surprised. This film is full of twists and Mewtwo's role in the film's plot is only the first major turn of the film.
I have no complaints as a Pokémon fan. Well, except one. Pokémon just evolve like it's no big deal in this movie. It feels strange, since the show always put such a big emphasis on evolution. Also, I did not put my shitty Magikarp at the front of my party only to switch him before he got damaged to a more competent Pokémon over and over again for 25 levels just for Detective Pikachu to sloppily throw a Magikarp and have it evolve to a massive Gyarados a few seconds later, thank you very much.
The dramatic beats of this film are well-acted, even by the fluffy yellow CGI Pikachu. The film itself is interesting, beautifully made, and (mostly) for the Pokémon fans that grew up with the franchise. The jokes are hilarious and a bit more adult than you might expect. So, that brings us to the big question - who is this film for? Pokémon is for kids, yet Pokémon has been for kids for over 30 years now. The Lego Movie, for example, was a nostalgic, toy-based film adaptation that was highly successful, both financially and critically. It combined a story for children with themes and humor that adults could enjoy. Detective Pikachu strives to do just that, and maybe even pushes those boundaries more than you would expect.
Overall, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the best blockbuster video game adaptation, so far. It’s not the end all, but I don’t see a contender coming any time soon. Despite a sloppy second act, full of twists that come out of nowhere, Detective Pikachu is a great adaptation of its source material. In a massive franchise where its organizations of villains regularly try to steal Pokémon and control the world, no over-the-top plot twist is really that surprising. Despite all of that, Detective Pikachu’s last twist didn’t sit all that right with me or the audience that night... with many laughing at the ridiculousness of it. Without spoilers, I will say that this film is extremely enjoyable nonetheless and will definitely spark more Pokémon films going forward.