Pokemon has been part of my life for 21 years now, it has practically always been a presence around me, and is quite frankly my favorite video game franchise ever. I’ve made countless friends through the franchise, and have just as many innumerous precious memories attached to it. This is all to say that I had great trepidation at the prospect of a live-action Hollywood adaptation of the franchise, given Hollywood’s track record at adapting both video games and Japanese media in general.
Despite liking the way things looked in the trailers I always held a wary edge towards this film, tempering my heart for yet another letdown, only this time one that could especially hurt me. However, by some miracle they managed to avoid the usual pitfalls and delivered a highly entertaining piece of cinema that will ring stronger the bigger a fan of the property you are.
When you boil it down to its key elements Detective Pikachu is a buddy cop mystery comedy, with some sprinkling in of drama for added depth and emotion. For the most part it isn’t amazingly well written, but it is also, thankfully, free of any glaring issues, outside of some odd pacing moments. The tale of Tim Goodman trying to unravel the mystery behind the demise of his decorated police detective father, with the help of his father’s Pokemon partner Pikachu, is solid and entertaining. The mystery in and of itself isn’t complex at all, and some of the bigger overall twists can be pieced together just watching the film’s trailers, but like the saying goes, it isn’t about the destination, it is the journey that gets you there.
Speaking of the journey, this is where the slight issue of pacing comes into play. There are at least a few scenes in the film where there is little room to breathe and let the dialogue or what is happening on screen stew with the audience for a bit as these scenes are filled with constant talking from the characters. In addition in terms of the overall plot it does feel like they cram a lot into the film’s shockingly low run time of only an hour and forty-four minutes. It isn’t that the film’s plot is overly complex, just that the film feels like it blasts through it faster than needed. Even adding in a small extension of time, such as ten minutes, could have helped things take a much needed gulp of air.
In fact, I’ll go further and say I simply wished the film was longer in general, because I quite frankly didn’t want to leave these characters or this world just yet. All in all, while the pacing is something to take note of, it is in no way, shape, or form a deal breaker. I really didn’t even mind the scenes filled with the characters talking nonstop, because the characters were just phenomenal.
In particular I greatly enjoyed the character of Tim Goodman. He has a surprising amount of depth for a lead human character in an entry in the Pokemon franchise. Not only does he have a strong subplot about the difficulties of his estranged relationship with his father, he actually works really well as an audience stand-in for any Pokemon fan who ever took a lapse in their involvement in the franchise. By the time the film starts Tim has moved on from his dream of being a Pokemon trainer. Because he literally lives in the Pokemon universe, however, he can’t ignore that Pokemon is still all around him, pretty much wherever he looks, but for the most part he is at arm’s length from everything. That is, until something pulls him back into the swing of things.
Spinning off from this, there’s also Detective Pikachu himself, who is just an absolute blast. He’s got a razor-sharp wit, and several peculiar character quirks, especially for a Pikachu, though sadly none of those quirks includes an unhealthy obsession with ketchup. What makes Detective Pikachu shine is how he plays off Tim. This works incredibly well on two fronts. The first how the times Detective Pikachu and Tim get to share emotional moments regarding Tim’s father. The second is seeing this now partner-less Pokemon try to help elevate a former trainer hopeful whose basically lost everything try to get some peace of mind.
Rounding out the film’s core characters is its primary supporting cast members anchored by an aspiring news reporter by the name of Lucy Stevens and the neurotic Psyduck she has as her Pokemon partner. At first I didn’t exactly catch on to what the film was trying to do with her character, but I eventually grasped that her eccentric behaviors are her trying too hard to play the part of what she expects an investigative reporter to behave like. It is a fine balancing act to utilize, but I feel that the film managed to nail it more times than not.
There’s a few more details regarding the film’s writing that I would love to go into, but they are pretty heavy on the spoilers, and also include some of the film’s best references to the Pokemon franchise, which I would rather let people experience fresh, because some of these things made me react with genuine surprise.
So I’m just going to address the Donphan in the room. Next to having Ryan Reynolds voicing Pikachu the most talked about thing with Pokemon Detective Pikachu heading into its release was easily the realistic designs of the Pokemon. In the trailers and screenshots, the Pokemon either looked cool or off-putting, with no middle ground. So going into this film I was really worried about how the Pokemon would mesh with everything else.
My worries were almost immediately put to bed from the start of the film. The very first scene in the film after its prologue is this simply gorgeous panning sequence where we follow a flock of Pidgeotto soaring through the sky over trees and open fields, flying over herds of other more animal-like Pokemon such as Bouffalant. During this part I wasn’t worrying about how things looked, what was going through my mind instead was the thought of, “Oh my god...that’s Pidgeotto!” Just like that, I stopped caring about the particular details of their designs. Seeing so many of my favorite Pokemon just moving out and about and reacting with real humans in a realistic way just sucked me in.
This is before we even get to the film’s primary location, Ryme City. If you read my review for Alita: Battle Angel, you may recall the loving praise I heaped upon that film for its depiction of Iron City, feeling like a well lived in location. I echo that same sentiment here with Ryme City and then some. Ryme City is this utopian Pokemon metropolis founded on the philanthropic ideal that Pokemon and humans can live together instead of the usual dichotomy with trainers and Pokemon under their servitude. In Ryme City Pokemon battles and Pokeballs are illegal. Visually this allows for Pokemon to fill the screen as far as the eye can see and is a decision I definitely am grateful for, even if having a bunch of Pokemon contained within Pokeballs would have likely helped lower their budget significantly.
However, like any good utopia, Ryme City has its seedier sides, and the aesthetics in these parts of the city swap the glistening pristine shine of the rest of the city for a more grimy urban sprawl that takes some visual cues from cyberpunk media. It’s a beautiful contrast to behold, and I am impressed with the choices made.
One of my absolute favorite sets in the film is the street market we see Tim and Pikachu walk through. It really amplifies a lot of the strengths of the visuals in this film, with so much on the screen, it is highly likely that no two viewers will pick up on the same things in any given scene. There’s just so many Pokemon and Pokemon-related things in the background that it is nearly on the verge of overload.
Speaking of those references, that’s a key component that will give you more enjoyment the more invested in the property you are. There are countless references contained just in posters and signs, but the real gem are some of the more overt references. These range from things such as the famous singing Jigglypuff with the green microphone to Tim wearing a shirt with Unown O on it to Lucy spending a pretty decent chunk of the film wearing an outfit very reminiscent to the default design of the female trainer in Pokemon GO.
Out of all the visual callbacks the film does the one that resonated with me the most, however, was of all things, the film’s end credits sequence. I won’t go into specifics, but this credit sequence was expertly done and honestly almost brought me to tears, by making me reflect on the time I’ve put into this franchise.
Being a film based on Pokemon, a series where the music and the very sounds the creatures make is part of the core package, it would be in the film’s advantage not to mess up in this aspect, and thankfully they did not. While most of the Pokemon don’t do their signature name repetition speech pattern, they do at least are smart enough to give them sounds that either fit the Pokemon perfectly or sound simply adorable. Even the Pokemon that repeat their names don’t only say their name. For example Lucy’s Psyduck made an audible groaning sound between their cries of “Psyduck!”
The key actors in this film absolutely nail their roles. Justice Smith did a really good job as Tim Goodman, especially considering this is one of his few leading roles in a major production I can think of. Justice is able to make both the emotional aspects of Tim’s character work, in addition to his role as the straight man to...several members of the film’s cast actually. Kathryn Newton had the unenviable task of trying to walk that balancing act with Lucy’s character arc, and I think she was able to make Lucy’s charms sing. She did really well handling such a tricky character type. Additionally, any supporting cast that consists of stellar character actors like Ken Watanabe and Bill Nighy is sure to be a solid support net for the main actors to work off of.
Finally there’s Ryan Reynolds as Detective Pikachu, who just absolutely steals the show. I know the meme request everyone wanted for Detective Pikachu’s actor was Danny DeVito, I was one of them. Reynolds is just a house of fire with the role, being an effectively more family-friendly Deadpool, dropping quips a mile a minute, giving the film a perfect vehicle to sneak in some surprisingly adult level of jokes. If for nothing else, check this film out just for Ryan Reynolds’ performance.
Pokemon Detective Pikachu is not a masterpiece, despite my glowing praise for it. It’s an enjoyable film bolstered by its strong cast and even stronger visual identity. However, as the potential first step in a Hollywood live-action Pokemon universe or even wider Nintendo universe, it excels. As a piece of nostalgia entertainment, it excels even more. There will be few Pokemon fans who will walk out of this film disappointed. It has taken decades, but finally we have a legitimately good Hollywood video game film that doesn’t require any kind of asterisks or caveats. Through Detective Pikachu, we genuinely live in a Pokemon world.