The ultra-popular Pokemon franchise has been a big screen mainstay for decades, particularly within its native Japan. Up until this point though, just about every Pokemon movie was based in the canon of the decades-ongoing Pokemon anime series, providing event-style theatrical adventures for the show’s protagonist, Ash Ketchum. It’s taken a very long time for a Hollywood-made Pokemon adaptation to finally complement the many Pokemon anime movies that were originally made for Japanese audiences and subsequently localized into English for the West, but finally, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu realizes an American-made Pokemon movie for today’s persistently franchise-hungry blockbuster movie market.
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu also marks the franchise’s first-ever live-action offering to boot, finally realizing many iconic Pokemon in a realistic-looking environment! It’s a dream come true for many adults who grew up on the Pokemon franchise, particularly those who continue to enjoy it to this day (made easier by the continued success of the series’ core games, as well as enduring augmented-reality smartphone game, Pokemon Go), though most children will also get just as much of a kick out of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu so brilliantly bringing the series’ world to awe-inspiring life! That’s really the main draw with Pokemon: Detective Pikachu– It makes the world of Pokemon feel genuinely real, and established Pokemon fans are bound to love it on that basis alone!
But what about everyone else? That’s the real question here, especially considering the dismal reputation of Hollywood’s video game-adapted movies so far. The good news there is that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is easily the best video game adaptation that Hollywood has managed to put together at this point, and even if you don’t know your Pikachu from your Psyduck, this movie is charming and fun enough to enjoy as a colourful distraction. The story and characters surrounding the core premise of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu will nonetheless leave a bit to be desired for non-fans especially though, as moviegoers will find themselves easily able to become engrossed in a genuinely imaginative universe throughout this movie, albeit a universe that doesn’t quite manage to flesh itself out enough in order to reliably convert non-fans of Pokemon into new fans of Pokemon.
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu loosely adapts a specific Pokemon video game, namely 2016’s narrative-based adventure/mystery game, Detective Pikachu for Nintendo 3DS. As with the game it’s adapting, the movie stars a young man in his early 20’s named Tim Goodman, played here by Justice Smith, who is the only person that can understand a mysterious Pikachu that’s always wearing a detective hat, and perpetually addicted to caffeine. Since said Pikachu, voiced here by Ryan Reynolds, can talk to Pokemon, and Tim can interact with humans, the two must work together to solve the mystery behind the disappearance of Tim’s father, with this movie mimicking the same narrative hook as the Nintendo 3DS game that inspired it.
Considering the insane deluge of Pokemon video games that Nintendo and The Pokemon Company have consistently delivered to fans since the late 90’s, a live-action Pokemon movie is truly spoiled for choice when it comes to stories it could adapt. In the end though, the cute and eccentric hook of Detective Pikachu does lend itself pretty well to a Hollywood adaptation, particularly with Reynolds’ plucky delivery coming out of a live-action Pikachu that somehow manages to defy the uncanny valley, and appear irresistibly cute, rather than uncomfortably creepy. The same is true of just about every live-action Pokemon that’s realized in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, in fact. There’s only a certain selection of Pokemon in the movie, naturally, which all had to no doubt be approved in advance by The Pokemon Company, which probably explains why the same handful of Pokemon seem to keep appearing in background shots as the movie goes on. Still, it’s tough not to fall in love with the little (and sometimes not-so-little!) guys, who somehow manage to feel charming and lifelike, and never like they’re just special effects that are awkwardly inserted into the sets.
The fact that the movie manages such great performances, despite the actors having to so frequently play off of imaginary monsters who aren’t truly there, is another great testament to Pokemon: Detective Pikachu’s success as a video game adaptation. Justice Smith manages to work well off of the mere voice of Ryan Reynolds, with Smith and Reynolds providing a standout double act that’s packed with comedic and dramatic chemistry. Female lead, Lucy Stevens, played by Kathryn Newton, and her Pokemon companion, Psyduck are often shouldered with the more juvenile delivery by contrast, in order to play more towards children with the duo’s well-meaning, but aggressively green disposition. Smith and Reynolds however deliver a surprising amount of adult-oriented banter between each other, with Reynolds in particular feeling like he’s trying to do everything in his power to hold back his inner Deadpool with many of Detective Pikachu’s wisecracks!
Some other recognizable names like Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy and Rita Ora also make appearances as key figures in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu’s overall mystery, though many of them have surprisingly little screentime, with Ora in particular entirely relegated to one flashback scene. Still, the likable Pokemon critters that appear throughout the movie help to compensate for some of the less developed human characters, who can only manage so much emotional or psychological depth in a mystery that’s obviously concerned with making sure that children can keep up with it.
Pokemon has a surprisingly adult-heavy fanbase, something that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu can sometimes display open awareness toward, considering some of its surprisingly risque jokes! Despite that however, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu still operates as a kid-friendly movie first and foremost when it comes to its storytelling. There are a few decent twists in its mystery, but beyond that, most adult viewers will be able to easily predict many plot turns in advance. This leaves Pokemon: Detective Pikachu to sometimes carry itself on the innate charm of its titular Pocket Monsters, but if you happen to dislike Pokemon for whatever reason, that won’t provide much comfort to you here.
Still, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu overcomes some of its frustrating simplicity with a noticeable degree of heart. This is a movie that’s clearly been made by people who love Pokemon, and who are clearly taking the responsibility of realizing the franchise’s first live-action movie very seriously. The writing has just enough wit behind it to equally entertain kids and adults alike as well, even if adults will likely wish for a world that’s at least a little meatier than what they get here. That said, I suppose that this is what sequels are for. That’s a prospect that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu happily invites too, as it lays the groundwork for a live-action cinematic Pokemon universe with delight, one that will probably keep compensating for some of its anemic story elements with the chance to see more live-action realizations of recognizable Pokemon that you and/or your children already love.
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu director, Rob Letterman is quickly becoming one to watch in the family-friendly movie medium! After previously defying expectations and wowing audiences with a surprisingly well-realized and entertaining Goosebumps movie in 2015 (putting aside its infuriatingly mediocre 2018 sequel anyway, which Letterman wasn’t involved with), Letterman has delivered a similar achievement with Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, a movie that, like Goosebumps, logically should have sucked, and yet somehow doesn’t. Letterman genuinely appears to understand the appeal of the Pokemon franchise, realizing many great scenes that will tickle Pokemon fans, and even delight non-fans pretty well, thanks to an infectious helping of colourful pep and explosive spectacle. As risky a prospect as a live-action Pokemon movie is, it’s fair to say that, in many respects, Pokemon as a franchise has never looked better than it has in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu!
Equally important however is how effectively Letterman realizes the bond between people and Pokemon in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. This is crucial in the case of Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu especially, who have to carry almost every scene with their quick-witted and adorable rapport. Even with other personalities however, such as Kathryn Newton’s Lucy Stevens and her perpetually stressed out Psyduck, or Ken Watanabe’s Lieutenant Yoshida and his gruff, no-nonsense Snubbull, the connection between humans and Pokemon is heartfelt and genuine throughout Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, which makes the world come together and feel believable. It would have been nice if Letterman wasn’t occasionally constrained by a script that sometimes barely scratches the surface of a live-action Pokemon story’s potential at its worst, but the spirit and heart behind Pokemon: Detective Pikachu feels strong, effectively proving that the power and draw of Pokemon can work in a live-action setting, even if it’s established fans that will recognize that the most.
Henry Jackman composes the score of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, and fittingly, it’s packed with themes that call back to both the video game franchise and anime franchise that serve as the two fundamental pillars of the Pokemon brand. Not only is the highly beloved original Pokemon anime theme song worked into this movie’s soundtrack (because of course it is), but the chiptune-layered compositions throughout many of the more exciting scenes also echo the feel of the adventure behind the series’ very first Pokemon video games made for Game Boy handhelds. This music suite further contributes to Pokemon: Detective Pikachu feeling like a very authentic cinematic offering for Pokemon fans, one that will make adult viewers with a love of Pokemon nostalgic for the days of their first discoveries with the franchise, while the children of today will also appreciate the energetic musical compositions as a way of further bringing them into an experience that feels true to the video games they enjoy, even if that’s merely Pokemon Go at this point.
The rest of the audio design in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu will likely be significantly more explosive than you would expect too! There’s quite a lot of power behind the Pokemon throughout the movie, making the action scenes feel surprisingly intense at times, without ever feeling uncomfortably violent, especially for children. Some of the more cartoon-ish audio effects with certain Pokemon still work here as well, but those who are looking for a Pokemon movie with some surprising punch will certainly get that too! There may be a few moments in the audio mixing that could bother the senses of really young children, but fortunately, the audio in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu seems pretty smartly done overall, being pleasantly engaging to children, and nicely provocative to adults. This helps the movie’s featured Pokemon feel impressive and awe-inspiring, and not just cute to look at.
Nailing the look of Pokemon in live-action is a colossal endeavour, one that had every opportunity to go horribly wrong, right from the initial trailers! Amazingly though, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu looks great throughout its entire runtime! Some live-action Pokemon designs inevitably look a little better than others, as you can imagine, but the way that the movie takes the cartoon-ish sensibilities of the hand-drawn Pokemon designs, and combines them with realistic lighting and textures, is an enormous triumph of artistic inspiration! One could scarcely imagine a more risky way through which Pokemon could feel so real in a live-action setting, and yet, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu makes them all feel positively natural, as if Pokemon were always meant to make the jump to the live-action medium sooner or later.
The sheer scale behind some of the visual effects in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is pretty amazing to boot, with entire action sequences centered around the larger-than-life powers and environments through which the movie’s Pokemon thrive! I certainly don’t want to spoil any of these highlight moments, but you can enjoy them with a little bit of extra visual punch if you shell out for a 3D ticket as well.
The 3D cut of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu makes the Pokemon battle effects and overall action scenes leap to life with some extra immersion and power, though if you’d rather skip the 3D glasses, the movie does look just as colourful and impressive when viewed flat in 2D as well. Despite the effectively pronounced and immersive 3D presentation in Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, the 3D is not quite essential to the experience, and there are times where the 3D effects become more restrained, and feel a bit like an afterthought. Essentially, whether or not to see Pokemon: Detective Pikachu in 3D or 2D comes down to a matter of personal preference, though if you have a taste for 3D movies, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu does at least manage some added appeal if you’re willing to pay the extra fee for some 3D glasses.
Pokemon: Detective Pikachu isn’t going to set the world on fire, nor is it going to suddenly convert public opinion toward immensely demanding more video game-adapted movies, but this movie nonetheless succeeds in its fundamental inspiration. It’s a good Pokemon movie, and it’s a good action-comedy for viewers of all ages. Even better is that it’s a legitimately good video game-adapted movie, and the world is way overdue for one of those! Best of all too is that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu may be the first video game-adapted movie that’s actually superior to the video game it’s adapting, and that’s no doubt its biggest victory when it comes to contributing to the ongoing battle of Hollywood still struggling to get their video game adaptations right!
The caveat however is that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu is clearly designed most of all for people who are already Pokemon fans, even if they definitely aren’t in short supply within any age group, nor any part of the world. You can still enjoy the movie well enough if you aren’t already a Pokemon fan, but what Pokemon: Detective Pikachu offers probably won’t convert you into the world’s biggest creature-collecting phenomenon if the franchise’s many, many previous video games, movies, toys and/or TV episodes haven’t already managed to do that. Regardless, this movie does prove that Pokemon can work well in live-action, with the right creative hands behind it, which will no doubt serve as plenty of motivation for Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures to begin imminently crafting plans for an ongoing Pokemon cinematic universe in the coming years. Hell, Legendary Pictures already confirmed work having started on a proper Pokemon: Detective Pikachu sequel almost half a year before this original offering even made it to theatres, which I doubt will surprise anyone.
Even if your usual reaction to the Pokemon franchise tends to be apathy, Pokemon: Detective Pikachu certainly doesn’t contain anything contemptible or disappointing. It just feels a little lightweight with its boilerplate storytelling, especially considering that its direction and visual design are often so spectacular. I suppose the shallow mystery is somewhat to be expected within a movie that has to accommodate a child audience, despite the majority of today’s Pokemon fans seemingly being adults, but it’s tough not to want just a little bit more after the credits roll with Pokemon: Detective Pikachu. Then again, it’s also true that this feeling can be a testament to the fact that Pokemon: Detective Pikachu has crafted a lovable and entertaining experience, if it ends with many viewers likely wishing that this live-action Pokemon world could be taken somewhere a little more narratively ambitious.
- Amazing visual design throughout, especially with the live-action Pokemon
- Reynolds' and Smith's entertaining double act
- Frequently exciting direction that feels true to Pokemon's themes and style
- Most of the human characters are underdeveloped
- Overall mystery feels too simple
- Demands being at least a casual Pokemon fan to get the most out of