"Pokémon: Detective Pikachu" is the first live-action film to stem from the beloved and long-running franchise created by Satoshi Tajiri. Directed by Rob Letterman of "Goosebumps" fame, the film succeeds largely thanks of its clever use of nostalgic appeal, phenomenal world-building and another fantastic performance from Ryan Reynolds, who provides the voice of the titular crime-solver. And after twenty-six years of almost universally sub-par adaptations, I think it's safe to say... it is the best video-game movie yet!
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a 21-year-old insurance salesman and former Pokémon trainer whose life isn't going very well. Especially when he learns that his police detective father Harry has been killed in the line of duty at the idyllic Ryme City. However, not everything is as it seems... and soon enough Tim encounters his father's former partner, a Pikachu (Reynolds) who he somehow has the ability to understand, and who believes Harry is still alive. Setting off to learn what really happened, they eventually join forces with a wannabe reporter (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck pal, and discover that the mystery goes far deeper than they could have ever imagined...
As someone who grew up in the heyday of "Pokémon Fever" in the late 90's and early 2000's, I was something of a franchise fan back in the day. I played through the original North American releases of Red, Blue and Yellow, I watched the early "Indigo League" episodes of the long-running anime series, and of course I collected the first few expansions of the trading card game. And though I drifted from the series around the time Ruby and Sapphire came out, suffice to say, I do have a certain nostalgic attachment to the overall beast that is "Pokémon."
And "Detective Pikachu" is exactly the sort-of film it needed to be to appeal to that child inside me. It pays nonstop tribute to the franchise through fun winks and nods, and comes across as a complete love-letter to the fans with clever references abound. (I won't spoil anything specific, but fans of the anime series will surely get a kick out of a certain storyline that ties almost directly into events from one of the animated feature-films.) As a former fan myself, I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear from the opening scene through the end credits. If you grew up on "Pokémon," I really can't help but imagine that you'll fall in love with the film immediately.
But perhaps the best aspect of the film is its immense and extremely well-executed world-building. From its first moments, "Detective Pikachu" plunges you into the world of Pokémon, and it is exquisitely handled. Director Letterman guides us through the film in such a way that it is both accessible for newcomers while also feeling familiar to fans. He gives us just enough information to bring us in... and lets us piece the rest of it together ourselves. Never over-explaining or under-explaining any part of the experience, and often using clever and subtle means to enhance the film... like faint things that are barely visible in the background, or street-signs you barely notice as they pass by the camera. It makes the world feel real and lived-in. Like you could walk right in through the screen. A lesser filmmaker would have likely ground the film to a halt and over-indulged in the proceedings. But Letterman is clever to avoid this pitfall. And I really appreciated it.
I also really enjoyed the cast, and they give the film much of its immense charm. Particularly Ryan Reynolds as the voice of Pikachu. While there is the inevitable comparison to be made to Reynolds' trademark character "Deadpool," I actually think he makes Pikachu his own character. He knows when to ham it up with a good, dumb joke and when to play it straight. I also really enjoyed Smith and Newton as our key human characters. While Newton does play her part a bit broad, it worked for the light-hearted tone the film set, and I thought she was absolutely adorable. I also quite enjoyed the iconic Bill Nighy as the enigmatic benefactor of Ryme City, and a small but fun turn from the always-reliable Ken Watanabe as a police detective Tim encounters several times throughout the story. That add a bit of class to the proceedings.
If I were to pinpoint any place where the film falls flat, I would say that the movie can often play it a bit too "safe." I think it was a necessary evil in this case, as you don't want to overwhelm the average filmgoer who may not be familiar with Pokémon, but the story and the various arcs the characters go through are a tad-bit... stock. You can pretty much guess the twists and turns the story is going to take, and there's only a few real surprises to be had if you're at all familiar with basic story-structure. Still, I do think it was better to play it safe now to bring in an audience, and that a potential sequel could later take more risks.
"Pokémon: Detective Pikachu" was an absolute blast for this former fan of the series. While its writing is a bit predictable, the fabulous world-building, nostalgic appeal and top-notch cast make it a very fun film that the whole family can enjoy. And I can't wait to see where a follow-up may take us next! I'm giving it a very good 8 out of 10.