Starring: Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Justice Smith (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), Kathryn Newton (Blockers), Suki Waterhouse (Assassination Nation), Omar Chaparro (How to Be a Latin Lover), Chris Geere (You’re the Worst), Ken Watanabe (Godzilla), Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead)
Director: Rob Letterman (Goosebumps)
Writers: Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit (One Day at a Time) and Rob Letterman and Derek Connolly (Kong: Skull Island)
Runtime: 1 hour 44 minutes
Release Date: 10 May (US, UK)
Pokémon has now been a pop culture staple long enough to be worthy of nostalgia. That just made you feel old, didn’t it? Well, prepare to feel young again, as Pokémon: Detective Pikachu practically feels designed to mine you for all your love for the franchise, whether you left it behind in your childhood or still hold onto it dearly. It feels like we go through this conversation every year or two, but there really has been a lot of hope since that first trailer that Detective Pikachu will be the first video game movie to knock it out of the park. Having now seen the final product, I’ll say this much: it’s not a home run, but its batting average is more than strong enough to secure a tidy victory.
Now Pokémon has a lot of pros and cons going into the process of live-action adaptation. On the good side, it’s a video game property that’s had mainstream attention like no other. On the bad side, it’s one that is only fully understood by those who really, really like it (I know I faced difficulty even explaining the basics to my parents as a kid). Luckily, Detective Pikachu does a satisfactory job of laying out all the key world building early on for the uninitiated, though there’s still a lot of minutia that only the established fans will fully understand. There is some interesting exploration into facets of the universe like the nature of Pokémon evolution and the bond between humans and Pokémon, but it’s all fairly surface level. Ultimately, this is a film more concerned with bringing the world to life rather than contemplating what it all means, and for the first film in a franchise it’s an acceptable choice. However, next time around, I hope they dig a lot deeper and find something more to say about the rich playground they have been afforded.
The film’s plot cribs a lot from similar detective-based kids movies, specifically Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Zootopia, but through its smart use of the property and its self-deprecating sense of humour it manages to cover its tracks fairly well. The filmmakers clearly love the property and know how to tell jokes about it that will resonate with fans whilst also addressing the absurdity of it (which I think the clueless parents in the audience will appreciate). It’s accomplishes the perfect balance between funny and cute, and there are plenty of comedic sequences that will have kids and fans giggling in their seats. On the negative side, most adults and/or Pokémaniacs will be able to piece together the mysteries pretty easily, and the rushed third act ends up leaving a lot of loose threads hanging and emotional beats lacking in impact, but in the moment it’s hard to care because of how utterly adorable the experience is. In terms of adapting a video game into a movie, this is the first one to have all the right pieces in all the right places, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.
Whilst not especially a standout in the original games, Pikachu became a worldwide icon through their starring role in the anime, so centring the first live-action Pokémon movie on a Pikachu is a smart move. Essentially doing a kid-friendly riff of his real-life persona, Ryan Reynolds’ performance as the titular electric mouse is a funny and adorable character from the moment he scampers onto screen, and his trademark facetious sense of humour gives the film just enough of a naughty edge without going overboard into crassness. His chemistry with Justice Smith’s Tim Goodman is extremely strong and endearing, which is a good thing because Goodman on his own is unfortunately a little bit of a generic protagonist. There’s enough character development and backstory there to make you care, but it’s all fairly generic daddy-issue stuff that isn’t given enough of a fresh twist. Then again, when your main point of comparison as a Pokémon protagonist is Ash Ketchum, Tim Goodman is still something of an upgrade
Kathryn Newton comes off a lot better as aspiring reporter Lucy, having not only a cute repartee with Goodman and Pikachu but also with her partner Psyduck, but unfortunately outside of her the supporting cast all feel a little undercooked. Ken Watanabe feels wasted in a thankless supporting role that doesn’t call for an actor of his calibre, but at least his relationship with his Snubble is kind of cute. Bill Nighy flits between disinterested and camp as city benefactor Howard Clifford, Chris Geere as his son Roger goes through a complete personality shift between his major appearances, whilst Suki Waterhouse practically fades into the background as bodyguard Ms. Norman until the third act; methinks a lot of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. It’s a real shame considering how full of colourful characters the Pokémon world is, and throughout the film I couldn’t help but want for Team Rocket to jump on screen and inject a little theatricality into the mix
What ultimately keeps Detective Pikachu engaging even when the story sags or the characters fall flat is the impeccable world building and aesthetics. Though obviously just a CGI-filled London at points (they don’t even try to hide some of the landmarks), Ryme City still manages to feel like a vibrant and lived-in place, and the integration of Pokémon trivialities into the world feels seamless. The design and visual effects work that has gone into bringing the Pokémon to life is phenomenal, perfectly balancing that line between faithful and photorealistic, and proves you can make any far-out concept work in live-action with enough skill and confidence. There are a lot of great action set pieces, especially towards the second half, though it will leave fans hoping for more Pokémon-on-Pokémon action feeling a little disappointed. The cinematography is vibrant and sweeping, lending a great deal of verisimilitude to this exaggerated world, and Henry Jackman’s score is full of energising compositions laced with plenty of familiar music cues from across Pokémon history laced in.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu succeeds not just because it understands its source material, but knows how to translate its inherent charm from something that works as a video game into something that works as a movie. It’s not a particularly profound or deconstructive piece of cinema, but it’s clearly not trying to be. This is a kids’ movie first and foremost, and for good or ill it throws almost all of its eggs into the baskets marked “cute” and “cool”. Though not as clever as the Paddington films or most Disney productions, it is smart enough to avoid pandering to its young audience and makes up for its shortcomings with a vividly realized story world and a bucket load of adorable creatures. If you’re not going into this as a fan of Pokémon already, you may want to knock a point off my final score, but if you are a fan you are almost certainly going to enjoy yourself. Now that the stage has been set and the basic formula proven strong, the opportunities for sequels and spin-offs to continue testing the waters are potentially endless. This may not be the perfect video game movie but, in all honesty, it would not surprise me if a future instalment in this new potential franchise turned out to be that lightning bolt Iron Man we’ve all been waiting for.
FINAL VERDICT: 7/10