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Video game movies have always had a rough track record, particularly when translated to live-action. At best, most have been sub par and even the ones that are remembered fondly are mostly enjoyed ironically. Pokémon has had more than its fair share of animated films based on the TV show that have released consistently since the late 90s to varying degrees of success. Never before had a live-action movie based off the game’s universe been done, despite realistic fan renderings of Pokémon and fake trailers being made over the years. However, the day has finally come when Poké fans can see all their favourite pocket monsters officially on the big screen, but not in the way they may have envisioned since childhood.
Detective Pikachu is based off of the 3DS spin-off of the same name, that took focus away from trainers, battling and raising Pokémon to become the very best like no one ever was. Instead, it focused on a young boy and his coffee addict talking Pikachu solving crimes and mysteries. A novel concept and breath of fresh air for an admittedly repetitive series, this has translated to the screen far better than you may have anticipated at its initial announcement.
The film stars Justice Smith as Tim, a 21-year-old whose estranged father has seemingly died in a car accident. Upon visiting his father’s home in Ryme City, a haven where humans and pokémon live side by side with no capturing, training or battling. He encounters a talking Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, that only he can understand. The creature tells him his father’s death seems far more suspicious than the police would imply. Together they set off with a spunky young journalist named Lucy (Kathryn Newton) and her partner Psyduck to uncover the mystery of Tim’s father’s disappearance.
Right out the gate, this film is going to have Pokémon fans cracking smiles left and right. Ryme City looks gorgeous, especially at night when doused in its neon glow. Watching how a regular world strikingly similar to our own incorporates with the franchise’s odd creatures is a massive treat for fans. Machamps direct traffic around sleeping Snorlaxs. Squirtle helps the fire department in a nice call back to the TV show’s Squirtle Squad. All in all, it’s great world building.
Each and every creation looks terrific and translates to live-action perfectly. From the fluffy to the imposing there’s not a bad looker in the bunch, with a wide selection of Pokémon from multiple generations of the games. The amount of times you’ll say aww or giggle to yourself just from seeing them walk or make sounds is more than you’d expect. On top of that, the film is consistently funny, with Poké fans and general audiences equally catered for.
Pikachu is adorable. Ryan Reynolds manages to make him feel unique and not like a family friendly Deadpool in a fluffy yellow body. He really becomes one with the performance as it goes on. You don’t see Reynolds when you see Pikachu, commendable for such a big actor who’s popping up everywhere lately.
Justice Smith gives a ranged and emotionally compelling performance. Rather than being a bland self insert or exposition machine to explain to non fans what a Greninja is, his Tim is well-fleshed out. He has nuances that add to his personality and there’s a level of subtlety when alluding to his childhood past and what lead him away from his dream of training Pokémon. Kathryn Newton brings her character’s eccentric yet determined journalistic nature out in a fun way. The two have a romance angle to their friendship that seems rather forced as if only added because that’s what happens to male and female leads in kid’s movies. That said, their chemistry as friends works perfectly fine.
The film isn’t without other issues. The third act features some plot contrivances, including something vital to the villains’ plan that isn’t acknowledged until the exact scene it takes place in. It’s nothing to drag the whole enterprise down. But it did raise an eyebrow.
The film’s plot is also a tad simplistic. The detective work becomes downplayed as the story goes on. This is on account of the use of holograms, whereby the trio reconstruct scenes vital to the case, preventing DETECTIVE Pikachu from solving much. It’s a device that enables the movie to blatantly spell out to the audience what happened, as if Pikachu and Tim finding clues and cracking the case for themselves wouldn’t have conveyed the message as clearly. That said, there are plenty of twists and turns, some of which I legitimately did not see coming. For a mystery film aimed at kids, that’s worth praising.
General audiences unfamiliar with Pokémon may get lost at points. While the film does a decent job of quickly explaining the franchise’s mythos without dwelling on it, there will be parts where they just have to roll with the punches. But Detective Pikachu isn’t made for them. It’s for the fans. They will find it a fun and joyful ride through the Pokémon world. It isn’t amazing but it hit what it strived for pretty nobly. Hopefully, it will lead to some more adventures in this universe.