Film Review – Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)
I have a confession to make — I’m a closet Pokémon fan. I was obsessed with it after its 90’s debut. And while time and maturity has tempered that, that love never fully vanished. So I wasn’t the only one confused when they announced a live-action Pokémon movie with Ryan Reynolds in the lead. It looked like it could go either way — enjoyable for fans and novices, or a phenomenal train wreck that falls in line with other notable video game adaptations. But does Pokémon Detective Pikachu capture Pokémon’s spark, or does it fizzle out?
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Rob Letterman
Written By: Dan Hernandez, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly, Benji Samit, and Nicole Perlman (story by)
Tim (Smith) has long given up his dream of becoming a Pokémon master. So it comes as a big “shock” to him when a Pikachu (Reynolds) whom only Tim can understand appears asking for his help. Pikachu’s partner, an ace detective who’s also Tim’s father, has gone missing, and they must work together to find him. Little do they know they’re close to unraveling a secret that could tear the world of humans and Pokémon apart.
The World of Pokémon
Pokémon Detective Pikachu does something no other Pokémon movie has ever done before. Naturally, it introduces the world of Pokémon to people who may not be familiar with it. Yes, I’ve seen some of the animated Pokémon movies, and they thrust viewers right into the thick of it with little to no explanation. It’s frustrating to have to explain why I like Pokémon to people who dismiss it offhand because the films give so little for newcomers to latch on to. Detective Pikachu solves that problem by immediately establishing human relationship to these creatures.
Ryme City, the movie’s main setting, feels so alive. Pokémon and people working together fill every background. A world filled with powerful monsters offers endless possibilities for creative sequences. I’m happy to report the movie doesn’t waste that potential. The fights are great, though one of my favorite scenes I can only describe as Inception meets a disaster movie. A synthpop soundtrack filled with callbacks to the games amplifies the fun.
Then there’s the Pokémon themselves. The simple designs translate so well into the real world. The amount of texture and exaggeration is just right. For nearly two hours you believe these creatures are there. There’s no uncanny valley here. The Sonic movie could stand to learn from this film.
Pikachu, I Choose You!
It makes sense that Pikachu is the star of the show; he is Pokémon’s mascot, after all. The choice of Ryan Reynolds raised more than a few eyebrows, however. Pikachu’s cuteness offsets Reynold’s snarky attitude. It’s hard to hear him as anything other than Deadpool; but once you get over it, he becomes the best part of the film.
Reynolds steals the spotlight despite Smith keeping pace with him. He could have easily been an obnoxious catchphrase-spouting cartoon character. Thankfully his quips are smart, and he’s more well-rounded than you’d think a character whose lines have previously consisted of “Pika Pika” would be. A throwaway line turns out to be a great insight into his character and sets up his arc. I was surprised by how heartbroken I was when he reaches a shattering revelation near the third act. Some of Reynolds’ on-the-nose dialogue prevents him from reaching the heights of Robin Williams’ iconic turn as Aladdin’s Genie, but he comes close.
A Not-So-Mysterious Mystery
Where Detective Pikachu falls short is its story. It’s not unbearable, but you have seen it before. Tim’s journey with his love interest and Pikachu treads the same path as Zootopia did three years prior; there’s a reluctant partnership that buds into friendship, shenanigans as the plot thickens, and a third act misunderstanding/reunion. Some of the plot beats are recycled from other movies, too. I had a feeling we’d be revisiting Batman‘s climax when Nighy’s character announced he’d be throwing a parade. And if you know your Pokémon as well as I do, it’s easy to guess who’s behind the big conspiracy.
There’s twists and turns that do their best to try to catch you off guard. You have to wonder if the intent was to homage traditional mystery mystery/gangster stories instead of trying something new. That was my thought early on: There’s a moment where Tim catches a famous fake gangster movie on television that made me burst out laughing when I recognized it.
While there was plenty I could see coming, the character interactions more than make up for it. The scene with Mr. Mime that was played up in the trailers is even funnier in full. It’s one of the few times where Smith is on the same level as Reynolds. Another is a vulnerable moment between Tim and Pikachu discussing the former’s dad. What they share carries a greater resonance when it comes to the movie’s final moments.
If you’re a Pokémon fan, Detective Pikachu is the movie for you. If not, it’s still an enjoyable ride. It could even make for a great introduction to Pokémon if you want to start getting into it. I’m proud to say that this is the very first video game film adaptation I’ve seen that’s good from beginning to end. While the plot is fairly standard, it’s the journey that makes it all worth it. And I for one am anticipating the sequel.
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