“Detective Pikachu, I choose you!” is what many movie fans proclaimed this weekend, as the pocket monster flick didn’t quite muster the support to topple Avengers: Endgame during its three-day debut, but still outperformed expectations, achieving the record for biggest opening for a video game adaption of all time. Based on the worldwide phenomenon that has spurned everything from trading cards to TV shows, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first live action film to be produced based on the franchise, and it is sure to leave long-time fans electrified.
Created by Japanese game designer Satoshi Tajiri, Pokémon was first introduced in 1996 with the dual-companion Nintendo Game Boy games Pokémon Red Version and Blue Version. Tajiri enjoyed insect-collecting in his youth, and developed the games as a way for children in urbanized environments to experience some of the same pleasure. Today, the franchise encompasses over 76 video games, an anime series with over 20 seasons, an animated film series with over 20 titles, a trading card game, toys, comics, and of course, the hit mobile game Pokémon Go.
And this year, the franchise boasts its very-first live action film with Pokémon Detective Pikachu. The movie is based on the 2016 Nintendo 3DS game Detective Pikachu, as director Rob Letterman liked the idea of focusing on a human protagonist other than Ash Ketchum, whom the widespread existing Pokémon media is already highly-saturated with. Detective Pikachu features Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, 2018’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a 21 year-old insurance appraiser who gets a call that his detective father has died in a car accident while working a case.
Tim then travels to Ryme City, an innovative metropolis founded by Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), who envisioned the location as a place where people and Pokémon could live and work together in harmony. While returning to his father Harry’s apartment to collect his assets, Tim is stunned to find a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who served as Harry’s partner. Tim is the only one who can understand the Pikachu, who claims Harry is still alive. With the help of news intern Lucy (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck, the group embarks to solve the mystery.
Many critics are already writing Detective Pikachu off as a corporate money-grab akin to The Emoji Movie aimed at capitalizing off the success of Pokémon Go, but these writers seem to ignore the franchise’s long-running history of rich mythology built through a variety of acclaimed media, which today’s millennials have a strong affection for. Sure, the Pokémon concept is relatively childish, relying largely on cute characters, and PETA would object to it as subliminally endorsing animal fighting, but there is plenty of material here for a solid family film series.
But as this is an adaptation of a highly cartoonish series of video games, the first challenge the producers need to confront is how they can faithfully translate the look and feel of these beloved creatures to live action, and I am pleased to report their work here is bound to be extraordinarily rewarding to the average fan. No, these monsters aren’t exactly realistic, and devotees are sure to get caught up in debates such as whether a Pikachu would have fur, but it’s obvious that this was a dedicated labor of love, and the result is a dazzling feast for the eyes and imagination.
As Pikachu is the cherished and iconic mascot for the Pokémon franchise, not everyone is going to agree with Ryan Reynolds’ casting as the electric rodent, but the point is stressed in the film that this isn’t supposed to be the definitive representation of the character, and you’re sure to find that the Deadpool actor is delightfully adept as the frenetic little detective. A PG-Ryan Reynolds is certainly something that takes getting used to, but the filmmakers are sure to leave some room for offbeat humor, and there are plenty of new sizzling Reynolds wisecracks to be enjoyed.
Justice Smith is also well-cast as Harry’s son and Pikachu’s latest partner Tim, and though he’s a bit of a drag in the early scenes, it’s understandable given the circumstances his character is going through. He’s also very competent with the film’s more emotional scenes, as Detective Pikachu packs plenty of heart. Kathryn Newton (most recently seen in Ben is Back) is also a pleasure as the plucky reporter Lucy, who may only be an unpaid intern with an office that’s more like a “coffin,” but knows a story when she sees one, and has plenty of spunk to spare.
But as this is a mystery story, Detective Pikachu exposes itself to that genre’s trappings, and this is an area where the movie slips up. This Pokémon adventure ricochets between its set pieces rather quickly, and while this makes for a lively viewing experience, keeping up with how each dot connects in the investigation is a bit of a challenge, and I found myself losing track the first time around. Upon second viewing, I can say the plot makes relative sense as long as you don’t apply too close of scrutiny. Just know depending on your viewing style you may need to be more alert.
But overall, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is a colorful and gratifying experience for fans of the franchise, and serves as an undemanding gateway drug for those who didn’t grow up with the pocket monsters. It’s also worth mentioning that Detective Pikachu not only boasts the highest opening off all time for a video game adaptation, it’s actually the first one of quality judging by the metric of Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps now we’ll begin to see more movies based on video games on the horizon. Let’s just hope they’re more like Detective Pikachu than Resident Evil.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, The Pokémon Company.
Directed by Rob Letterman.
Written by Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, and Derek Connolly. Based on Detective Pikachu by Creatures Inc.
Starring Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Suki Waterhouse, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, and Bill Nighy.
Released May 10, 2019.