Movies based on video games have a bad track record, to say the least. From the disastrous Super Mario Bros. film in 1993 to the middling to cringe-worthy Resident Evil and Tomb Raider films of the contemporary era, many have concluded that video game narrative structures cannot effectively translate to the silver screen. Pokémon Detective Pikachu blows that notion away with a fun but heartfelt story in a fully realized world.
Detective Pikachu follows the structure of the 2018 3DS game of the same name, but this is a rare — if not the only — instance in which the film is far superior to the game it is based on. Protagonist Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) receives news early in the movie that his father, a detective with whom Tim has a strained relationship with, has died in a car crash. Tim travels to the new Rhyme City to pay his respects, when he finds a talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) with amnesia and a detective cap belonging to Tim’s father. The only one able to converse with Pikachu, Tim teams up with the electric Pokémon to solve the mystery of his father’s death and Pikachu’s past.
For the most part, Detective Pikachu’s overarching plot keeps things simple, with each mystery’s solution being fairly predictable. However, the story is still enjoyable through Tim and Pikachu’s hilarious and playful chemistry throughout the movie. Although still appropriate for children, some of the things that come out of Pikachu’s mouth are still unbelievable for such an adorable yellow rodent. It may be jarring to hear Reynold’s deep voice come out of Pikachu’s mouth for a few short moments, but the facial capture technology combined with Reynold’s excellent performance make it an easy transition.
It’s evident that every Pokémon was given as much painstaking time and attention as its titular character, as every creature shown seems like it would belong in the world. Using the anime designs of Pokémon as guides, the artists were able to translate these creatures into realistic creatures, with fur, scales and feathers that gives even more detail. Audiences will want to pause at nearly every frame to fully take in how true to form each design is, and most fans will squeal when they see their favorite Pokémon brought to life.
Inspired by the original GameBoy titles, Henry Jackman’s score infuses the bleeps and bloops of synthesized music with the score’s orchestra to amazing effect. The soundtrack evokes the fun and playfulness of the older Pokémon video games without sounding out of place at all, which is an incredible achievement. Just as Detective Pikachu is a seemingly effortless fusion of the real world with Pokémon’s, so is Jackman’s score between synthesized and traditional music.
For better or for worse, the movie rushes by sometimes seeming like it’s hopped up on as much caffeine as the electric mouse himself. Some elements are introduced without being fully explored, such as Tim’s attempted romance with the overly peppy journalist Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton). The villains aren’t given enough screen time to be convincing, and end up coming across as goofy mustache-twiddlers. Detective Pikachu is worthy of many points of praise, but its core plot isn’t much to write home about.
Pokémon is a beloved brand spanning generations, and with the recent success of Pokémon GO, more people than ever have become attached to these pocket monsters. Legendary Pictures were careful to honor the brand, keeping the rules of Pokémon intact while making some of their own, and never overcomplicating things for the layman. Whereas, the many previous anime Pokémon films have focused on established characters and locations, Detective Pikachu is a mystery comedy that happens to be set within the world of Pokémon.
The structure of a video game establishes a plot that is able to necessitate frequent combat, or whatever the player’s main interaction with the world is. Although many beautiful stories have been told through games, the same stories seldom work in other media because that structure ceases to be interesting when player agency is taken away. Detective Pikachu works by discarding any notion of following the plot or structure from the core games or anime, and instead tells an original story set within the world these games have already created. As it turns out, Tim and Pikachu uncovering what truly happened with his father’s supposed death makes for more interesting movie scenarios than fighting seven gym leaders and the elite four to become the Pokémon champion.
It takes balls to give Legendary Pictures so much creative freedom with one of the most valuable media franchises in the world. Fortunately, Pokémon has plenty of those.