A talking Pikachu helps a twenty-one-year-old solve the mystery of what happened to his father and what’s going on with a strange gas that makes Pokémon act irrationally. It sounds weird on paper. It sounds even weirder when you throw in the fact that it’ll be live-action with CGI elements. And yet, here we are: Nintendo did it. And I’m here for it.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu actually starts with Mewtwo in a familiar situation to old fans: trapped in a pod in a lab. However, he breaks out and causes a car wreck. We then meet our protagonist, Tim (Justice Smith), who was into the idea of being a Pokémon trainer as a kid but has left the dream behind for a job in insurance. While hanging out with a friend (who tries to get him to catch a Cubone), he gets a call: that was his (estranged) dad in the car, so he has to go to Ryme City and take care of his dad’s personal effects. In his dad’s apartment, he meets an odd Pikachu that he can communicate perfectly with.
The story itself is decent and honestly feels similar to the basic story (and pacing) of a mainstream Pokémon game, no better, no worse. Kid (re)enters a Pokémon world with a partner and through his adventures uncovers and combats an evil organization/its evil leader. It’s not necessarily the newest tale at its base, but the details fill out the movie in the same way each game differentiates themselves from its predecessors. And there’s actually a pretty good twist that totally caught me by surprise, which doesn’t really happen in the games.
Where Pokémon Detective Pikachu really blew me away was in the worldbuilding and visuals. It is the Pokémon world we know, mostly–eventually we learn that Mewtwo’s destruction of Cinnabar Island did take place 20 years ago (which is more or less the truth, at least outside of Japan), and Tim has all sorts of memorabilia from the different regions of the world. Ryme City is just a different aspect of it, where there isn’t supposed to be constant fighting, rather a harmonious life between people and their partners.
And Ryme City looks like what most people imagine or have imagined the Pokémon world to be like. There are Spearows and Pidgeys fluttering around, Rattatas scour back alleys for trash, and humans walk with Growlithes and Purrloins like real pets through the streets (Tim’s human partner, an aspiring news reporter named Lucy [Kathryn Stevens], sometimes puts her Psyduck in a baby carrier), and many other Pokémon are seamlessly integrated into the city life as firemen, waiters, and entertainment. Their existence and interactions with the world are convincing.
And a lot went around about the Pokémon designs–out of context, they do look kind of creepy. In context? It’s a seamless world, and they look like they belong. The only design choices I found weird were with Gengar (they seemed too solid) and Mewtwo because they gave him a very humanoid set of teeth. The Pokémon are all convincingly there, having weight and interacting with humans appropriately.
The acting in Pokémon Detective Pikachu also surprised me. I thought it was going to be as campy and over-the-top as the old movies for the sake of the target audience of, you know, actual children. Tim and Lucy have those moments for sure, as do the other humans. I think it would be hard not to, considering the source material, and that young audience. But Ryan Reynolds blew it out of the park as Detective Pikachu. Seriously. The quality of the animation/integration helped, but he’s a natural as a voice actor, and he gives Pikachu a lot of personality. It sounds like they gave him suggestions for lines, and then just let him do hours of improv in the booth for material.
Going off of that, the movie works well simultaneously for both its kid and adult audiences. The jokes are pretty funny–the Mr. Mime scene is even better in the film with its weird Looney Tunes-esque humor–and again, Reynolds is just so strange and funny. During the scene where Tim first meets him, Tim is attacked by Aipoms and Pikachu briefly considers a kitchen knife as a solution. What? He’s just like that. The overall world is kind of like that too: when Tim enters his father’s apartment, the fake movie from Home Alone is playing on his TV. Okay, sure, that’s just what life is like here. There aren’t really jokes just for kids or just for adults, they’re just jokes.
It also balanced its audiences well in other ways. The backstory was quick and didn’t linger on anything for too long. Even the references to Mewtwo’s origin happens quickly, because a kid might not know about that, and older fan probably won’t need too much of a refresher.
The story plays pretty straight, with references to twenty plus years of the franchise sprinkled throughout, like the show’s first theme song appearing as a news jingle and as a tune sung by a distraught Detective Pikachu. Even the traditional Pokémon designs have a place at the end of the film. An older fan will have an easier time guessing plot points if they remember their old school lore, but maybe not–a big twist still caught me by surprise even as I recognized the individual clues and references.
So, overall? Pokémon Detective Pikachu was a great movie. It may not exactly sweep the Oscars next year (although it actually probably deserves something for visual effects), but it’s a fun movie for fans of all ages. It’s funny, it’s a little emotional, it looks great, and it delivered exactly what I was hoping for and more: a realistic Pokémon world that looks convincing enough to inhabit and enjoy like I always wanted to as a kid.