Video Game Movies Finally Get a Clue – Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

I’ll say right upfront that this review has to be taken in a very specific context. Starring Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith (last seen screaming like Dakota Fanning in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), Warner Bros. brings what may be the very first truly successful video game adaptation to film with Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. Set inside the pocket monster universe but specifically lifting its premise and title character from a spinoff Nintendo game, Detective Pikachu has already accomplished the unthinkable, breaking the record for the opening weekend box office returns for a video game adaptation, and even giving Avengers: Endgame a run for its money on the whole (its $54 million haul fell just shy of Endgame‘s $63 million).

Now it’s one thing for a movie to make money. The first two animated Pokémon movies each grossed over $100 million domestically. But the big question is, is the movie actually any good? Yes and no. Structurally, the film has some glaring flaws that are for the most part outweighed by some pretty good special effects and decent acting. The real core issue is access to the material. Because when it’s all said and done, this movie is almost 100% fan service, filled with references and in-jokes to beat the band. If you’re not a fan of the Pokémon franchise (video games, anime, cards, whatever), there will be almost nothing to latch on to. However, if you do have some connection and affection for it, there’s a great deal of nostalgia and knowing humor to go along with the more generic successes of the production. As such, with the qualification that it’s not universally for every audience, I can honestly say that this will probably go down in history as the first truly good video game movie.

Smith stars as Tim Goodman (just in case you weren’t sure who the protagonists were, their names slap you in the face with it), a 21-year-old youngster who used to harbor dreams of being a Pokémon trainer before his mother died and he left his policeman father behind to live with his grandmother. His dreams have so far departed him that he’s the only person in town without a Pokémon companion of any kind, and just to make him seem more depressingly dull, he works as an insurance adjuster.

After a comical encounter with a Cubone (yes, I’m going to name various Pokémon and I won’t explain what they do; look it up if you’re confused), Tim’s world is shaken even further when he learns his father Harry has been killed. His car was allegedly blasted off the road by Mewtwo – whose origin is traced back to Pokémon: The First Movie as canon – but no body was recovered from the scene. Rather than accept the condolences of Harry’s colleague, Detective Yoshida (Ken Watanabe), Tim simply decides to go to his father’s apartment, collect his belongings, and leave.

In the hybrid town of Ryme City (it looks like a combination of New York, Tokyo, and London – complete with the Gherkin building), Pokémon battles are outlawed and forced into underground clubs, sort of like dog fighting. This decidedly woke approach to the gladiatorial slavery aspect of the franchise is the vision of the city’s founder, Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), to create a society where people and Pokémon live in peace and harmony. Now in failing health, his corporation and its day-to-day operations are handled by his son, Roger, played by Chris Geere, who actually gets to amp up his dickish routine from You’re the Worst. He’s Jimmy Shive-Overly with a Ditto, which makes things that much more fun, honestly.

It is against this backdrop where Tim meets the two most important people (entities?) to his journey. The first is Lucy (Kathryn Newton from Blockers), an intern at the local cable news station who thinks Harry’s disappearance is the story that will make her career. She also carries around a Psyduck for comedic effect. The second is inside his father’s apartment, where Tim meets the titular electric mouse Pokémon, voiced by Ryan Reynolds doing a PG-rated Deadpool shtick (in one inspired bit, he walks along a lonely road singing the anime’s original theme song, a la David Banner walking down the road at the end of The Incredible Hulk). This version of Japanese Mickey is sarcastic, amnesiac, and addicted to caffeine. All he knows is that he used to be Harry’s partner, so he’s tossing the apartment looking for clues to Harry’s disappearance and his own past.

The initial shock of Tim and Pikachu’s meeting is in the very fact that they can communicate. If you’ve ever watched the cartoon, you know that most Pokémon (apart from Mewtwo and Team Rocket’s Meowth) can’t actually talk, apart from saying their own species name. They can talk to each other via this convoluted verbal pattern, but humans can’t understand them. So the fact that Tim can hear Pikachu as if he’s speaking plain English (which no one else can hear) is enough to drive anyone in this universe temporarily insane.

Also good for this purpose is a purple gaseous substance known only as Element R. Tim accidentally sprays some on himself and out the apartment window, briefly turning a group of Aipom into feral attackers. This substance is the key to discovering the entire plot of Clifford Industries, Harry’s disappearance, Pikachu’s memory, and Mewtwo’s attack.

Now if you’re an old fan of the franchise, there’s a lot of eye candy for you here. Just about every Gen 1 Pokémon is referenced in some way, either in person as a character (Tim and Pikachu’s interrogation of Mr. Mime is priceless) or as a background Easter Egg (Tim’s childhood bedroom has a poster advertising a battle between a Steelix and the legendary Articuno, for example). There aren’t too many nods to the more recent generations of the game (to say nothing of the upcoming ones this fall), so much of the appeal for the younger audience will be in the sheer cuteness factor.

And holy shit is the adorable cranked up to 11! You have Squirtles putting out fires, a herd of Bulbasaur helping heal their fellow Pokémon, a Snorlax asleep in the middle of a busy intersection while a Machamp directs traffic. Even Detective Yoshida has about the cuddliest Snubbull you’ll ever see! Before you even get to the squee moment of a Pikachu in a deerstalker cap, you’ve already fallen in love with these little monsters all over again.

Part of it is nostalgia, certainly, but it also has to be said that the effects team went above and beyond in rendering the Pokémon to be as realistic as possible, while still maintaining their cartoonish cutesy nature. Even when they’re not going for doe-eyed, it’s still effective, like a gag where a Lickitung looks creepy as all hell as it slobbers Tim in the face. Most of the Pokémon are disarmingly cute, but more importantly, they all look alive, and that is saying something, especially if you’ve seen the trailer for the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie.

Now like I said, there are myriad flaws. Just off the top of my head I have to wonder why the police don’t seem too interested in investigating the crime scene or Harry’s disappearance/supposed death. It’s an explosion, and it’s a cop. You’d figure they’d be just a bit more aggressive here. Also, until the film’s climax, most of the action set pieces are Tim running away from things. Justice Smith got plenty of practice running away from fake dinosaurs, but this isn’t really a skill he should put on his résumé. Lucy initially seems like a compelling character with her own agency, but is quickly slid back into the generic love interest position. Even when she gets chided by Roger (who validly points out that it’s not journalism if you don’t have a source for your story; rumors are only for tabloids), it’s treated like a dick moment for him rather than a legitimate teachable moment for her.

And then of course there’s the biggest fault of all, as I mentioned earlier, and that’s the fact that this film is utterly inaccessible if you’re not a fan. Perhaps in the long run it will turn out to be the key to doing these types of films right. There’s always that balance between what should be included and what shouldn’t, about which fans to please and which to leave out in favor of more general appeal. This movie, for right or wrong, does have the ambition to just say, “Hey, this has been around for 20+ years. If you’re not a fan, take the kiddies elsewhere.” Initial box office returns would suggest that the gambit paid off, and I will say that I almost thoroughly enjoyed the movie because I could connect with it so easily. But from a filmmaking perspective, it’s a dangerous practice to intentionally shut out a good chunk of your prospective audience. It might work in this case, but producers and directors would be wise not to make a habit of it.

All in all, though, the reason this film is a good one is because it doesn’t short shrift the one universally-understood theme that has to shine through in order for any of this to work. At the core of the Pokémon series, beyond all the toys and merchandising, is the relationship between two stalwart companions, between a trainer and his Pokémon. There’s a bond formed, and the strength of that bond is what has allowed fans to overlook the less comfortable aspects of the franchise for over two decades.

And in this movie, that essential bond, that rapport, is presented properly. Justice Smith is far from being the best actor out there, and Ryan Reynolds’ witticisms will eventually become trite (if they haven’t already). But there is a definite chemistry between Tim and Pikachu from their very first encounter, which is hard enough when one of the characters is CGI, and even harder when every cynical bone in your body wants to dismiss this as branded content at its worst. I don’t know how they did it, but the two of them sold me on the partnership, and while it might not have formed organically (and there are several retroactive questions I have now that I’ve seen the entire story), the development was believable. If you told me this would happen when the movie was announced last year, I’d have done a spit take.

I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would, and as far as I’m concerned, we’ve finally gotten a good video game flick. For my own personal enjoyment, I’d give it a B, but again, this film is utterly foreign for non-fans, who would compound their frustration with its more obvious flaws, which would downgrade it to a C. I’ll split the difference.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Did you ever play Pokémon as a kid? Is a bunch of Loudreds screaming EDM with Diplo the perfect microcosm of how far society has fallen? Let me know!

3 thoughts on “Video Game Movies Finally Get a Clue – Pokémon: Detective Pikachu

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