I took my kid to a theater to see Detective Pikachu. It’s a Hollywood film based not only on the never-ending Pokemon franchise, but a semi-direct adaptation of a Pokemon spin-off game that almost never left Japan. How weird is that? Weirder still, is the odd feeling of “newness” accompanying this film. It was like I had never seen a Pokemon movie before, despite the fact I have, multiple times, in movie theaters. But Detective Pikachu is different. It’s even a pretty great movie, if you’re already drinking the Kool-Aid.
This is the first Hollywood Pokemon movie, which is something that carries a lot of weight. It’s a slightly xenophobic weight, but a cultural weight nonetheless. The other Pokemon movies were all anime produced in Japan, tied directly to the characters and canon of the Pokemon anime series. In contrast, Detective Pikachu is a Hollywood production, backed by a large studio, with a massive budget. Anime movies have tiny budgets in comparison and have a certain style (especially the Pokemon anime) that has an inherently limited appeal.
I’m not saying Detective Pikachu is going to suddenly convert non-fans. This is a Pokemon movie through and through, which means a prior investment in the world of dog-sized rats and other woodland creatures is kind of necessary. However, this is also a movie parents will be taking their kids to. I know that for a fact, as young me had my confused (but trying) parents in tow for Pokemon the Movie 2000 so many years ago. That’s just how this works. With the production values of a high-budget Hollywood movie, the star power of Ryan Reynolds, and the overall polish of a project like this (in craft, writing, and sound), it has a much better chance of being a good time for everyone in the room.
Frankly, it’s a super solid movie overall. While vaguely based on the Nintendo 3DS game, the basic story of the game is merely used as a springboard into a movie that takes bits and pieces from Pokemon as a media franchise to craft its story and world. And what a world it is! While the movie acknowledges the greater world of Pokemon, even noting the Kanto region from the original games, the movie is set in a city that doesn’t play by the normal rules. Pokemon don’t live in captivity, instead living alongside humans and participating in the infrastructure. This is a good excuse to show off the excellent 3D renders of the various creatures.
Much of Detective Pikachu is hoisted on the back of its two leads, Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith. Despite the corny material, Justice Smith plays his role as the human lead devotedly, selling the drama with an earnestness that makes the outlandish world feel real. Reynolds on the other hand, chews the scenery exactly as much as a talking Pikachu character should, making for tons of comedy bits that almost always land. The Detective Pikachu character is a hoot compared to the video game version, borrowing certain traits (addiction to coffee), but since we aren’t filtering comedy through a language barrier, the wit is a bit more quick and accessible for everyone watching. It also isn’t afraid to be a little crass at multiple points, including Pikachu saying the words “birth canal.”
The story gets pretty weird as it progresses, finding ways to introduce twists and turns the way a breezy Hollywood summer flick does, but also doing some wild stuff with Pokemon lore that barely fits in. While hardcore Pokemon fans and even kids may be scratching their heads a bit during the climax, ultimately the weird stuff feels temporary and out of place even within the fiction, which helps sell the stakes in an odd way. Overall, the plot does what it needs, and Bill Nighy’s role finds a sweet spot in its campiness similarly to Reynolds’ Pikachu. The characterization of Mewtwo, which actually borrows from the anime portrayal, also feels spot-on. Someone involved with making this movie probably grew up with Pokemon like we did, and it shows.
One of the headlines associated with Detective Pikachu is that it’s the best-reviewed movie based on a video game to date. While I have enjoyed movies based on video games before, such as the recent (solid, but flawed) Tomb Raider flick, I have to say this one really nailed it. Detective Pikachu boasts a legitimate respect for the source material, a unique style and vision of its own, and a solid collection of writing, performance and craft that makes it a joy to watch. Detective Pikachu is an odd pitch on paper, but on the screen, it knocks it out of the park.