When I was a kid, I used to imagine with the absolute wonder of a young boy what the world would look like if Pokémon were real. This thought was persistent, always sticking at the back of my mind because if I knew one thing, I knew it would be a better world filled with Pokémon. When CGI in movies started getting good, the thought came back to the forefront: what if there was a live-action Pokémon movie? Since Pokémon will never be real, I could at least see what that might look like. But, everyone I said this to always told me it would be terrible. That, because of the graphical style of Pokémon in the first place, it would only do the franchise a disservice.
This past week, Detective Pikachu proved all those people wrong.
Bringing Pokémon to life
I think most people, if not everyone, who has seen a picture or trailer of Detective Pikachu can unanimously agree that they did Pikachu right. He’s adorable, he’s happy, and while I know his fur was a little bit shocking to a lot of people when the first trailer was released, it was something that was quick and easy to get used to the more we saw it. After all, we all know in the back of our minds that Pikachu are furry… they’re mice, after all. But what about the other Pokémon that were featured in the movie, particularly Pokémon with large, grandiose, more detailed or complicated designs?
In total, I’d say there were a little over 50 different Pokémon species featured in varying capacities in Detective Pikachu (clearly, they’re saving some for the sequel), and the creators were surprisingly good about the variety of Pokémon they used. Both from a design and generation standpoint, you can tell this was a real attempt at integrating the ENTIRE Pokémon world into a live-action space. Pokémon like Jigglypuff, Aipom, or Togepi we’re all Pokémon like Pikachu: cute, simple designs that easily translated to screen. But Pokémon like Gyarados, Greninja, and Charizard were handled with an equal amount of care that made them feel both real and plausible within the context of the universe. Looking at the way each one of these was modeled and animated, you can tell immediately that everyone working on this film has an extreme respect for the property… and it pays off.
The integration of Pokémon into typical city life is also something I’d like to commend the creators on. While it might seem like a simple task in theory, with so many Pokémon to choose from and handle in the Pokédex, the actual process of vetting all the different kinds of ‘mon and then figuring out how each one belongs in the grander scope of things can actually be quite daunting. Sure, we’ve seen smaller examples of this throughout the Pokémon franchise’s lifespan (police officers were accompanied by Growlithe or Arcanine in Ryme City, too); but Detective Pikachu took this to an entirely new level. Squirtle helped put out fires, Machamp helped direct traffic around a road-blocking Snorlax — which, by the way, was a nice nod to the original games — and Braviary delivered mail around the city. The way people and Pokémon interacted in the city made the whole thing feel truly integrated and believable, and seeing the Pokémon universe that I love depicted in such a sprawling, lively way actually brought tears to my eyes.
When boiled down to simplest terms, Detective Pikachu treats its Pokémon as something that people are already familiar with — the world knows who Pikachu is, and even those who don’t play Pokémon know what it means to throw a Poké Ball. As a result, we get a movie that treats Pokémon not as something remarkable, but as something that’s already a part of everyday life.
Do you want to be the very best?
Because Tim Goodman sure doesn’t.
If you’re a casual fan of Pokémon and you’re looking to go into this movie to enjoy scenes of Pokémon catching and Trainer battles, then I’m going to warn you now to skip it entirely. Because the most interesting thing about this movie is that it’s not your typical Pokémon Trainer journey.
In fact, Tim Goodman is an insurance appraiser when you meet him in the very beginning.
We know from the trailers that Tim has no interest in being a Pokémon Trainer or even really owning a Pokémon, but the clips we’d seen before release never quite gave us an explanation. And in some ways, fans might see this as a challenge: Tim overcomes his fear of being a Trainer and raises a team of Pokémon for battle. But the fact of the matter is, this movie comes with a single scene of Pokémon catching, and a single scene of Pokémon battling, likely included in the movie to give the fans that little taste of these key in-game mechanics. We have to remember when we watch this movie that it is and adaptation, but an adaptation of a spinoff game that largely has nothing to do with catching and training Pikachu or Charizard.
However… I say with absolute certainty that this is to the movie’s benefit.
The way I see it, we don’t need another Pokémon Trainer origin story, and by avoiding that origin story trope all together we’re allowed to see the Pokémon world as it is, instead of how it looks through a new Trainer’s eyes. This lets the world that the movie sets up be grounded in reality, which ultimately rewards us with not only a better experience but one that any moviegoer can enjoy, instead of just the die-hard PokéFans. In Detective Pikachu, the world-building acts the same as with any franchise, and doesn’t rely on the knowledge that a longtime fan might have.
So, without being about a Pokémon Trainer, what is Detective Pikachu about? If you’ve played the spinoff game on 3DS, you’ll have a general idea; tweaks were made to the overall plot but the general story still remains. Without giving away any spoilers, I can say that plotline for Detective Pikachu at its very core is your typical “boy searches for his lost father” trope…
(You can hear another “but” coming, can’t you?)
BUT, the story is really much more than that. And don’t get me wrong — I don’t mean that in a “this movie is the most profound piece of art I’ve ever seen in my life” way. I may be a die-hard PokéManiac, but I’m no fool. I loved this movie to death, yet I’m not going to argue that it was the greatest film I’ve ever seen. What I mean by saying that the story is much more, is that the writers clearly knew what they were working with when it came to this universe, and they used it to their utmost advantage.
At the end of the day, Detective Pikachu’s “finding your father” plot couldn’t have worked in any other movie. It wasn’t the kind of story that could be picked up and dropped into another film as it is, because the writers wanted to make use of what they could do with the world and the characters in it. It is a story that is so ROOTED in Pokémon and relies so heavily on the context of the Pokémon universe as a whole, and the lore that the movie creates, that it becomes unique in and of itself. At the end of the day, it may not be anything revolutionary per se, but I don’t need Detective Pikachu to take risks. I need it to respect the franchise and do it justice.
Pikachu used Encore!
Speaking of justice, let’s talk about the performances within the movie. Justice Smith plays our main (human) character, a name I’ve said plenty in this review, Tim Goodman, and even after seeing the movie once I’ll be honest and say that I can’t really see Tim as anyone else. Justice did a fantastic job in embodying an independent young adult hesitant to bond with Pokémon, but by the end of the film I believed his arc and believed that he’d found friendship in Pikachu and Pokémon in general. Alongside Ryan Reynolds, Detective Pikachu himself, these two actors played well off of each other and made every interaction more than believable.
Reynolds himself did an incredible job as Pikachu, too, and while I know fans were rooting for Danny DeVito to be the spoken voice of the iconic mouse, you won’t be disappointed with Reynolds’ performance. While the writing for Pikachu paired with Reynolds’ voice does sometimes come across as a more mild-mannered Deadpool performance, the character somehow still feels authentic and unique, and I can say with confidence that I never once questioned why Pikachu was the way he was. Reynolds does a fantastic, hilarious job that’s both enjoyable and entertaining, and I’m having trouble imagining how anyone else could have done it better.
Supporting cast members like Kathryn Newton as Lucy, Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford, and Ken Watanabe as Detective Yoshida also all deliver, and while I can’t say that each performance was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life, I didn’t walk away at any point feeling like I was missing something from them. And in the case of Smith and Newton, two characters you’ll be spending a lot of time with in the movie, it was clear that they knew what they were talking about; these two actors are genuine Pokémon fans — and not only does it show, it pays off.
Detective Pikachu was, undoubtedly, a revolutionary step for the Pokémon franchise and The Pokémon Company overall. While it’s not getting critically acclaimed reviews, the movie is liked by critics and fans alike and is officially the first video game adaptation to be “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. This alone is proof that Pokémon can work in a live-action setting with the right writers and producers behind it, and I for one am excited to think about what this could mean in the future.
For the time being, we know that a sequel is in development. But what about moving past Detective Pikachu? If I’m being perfectly honest… I’m not sure. If you’re a Pokémon fan in any capacity, you’d know that there’s plenty of lore and story and world-building to work with in terms of crafting new stories, but I’m not sure that adapting any mainline Pokémon games, even loosely, would be the greatest idea for this live-action format. After seeing Detective Pikachu, the classic Pokémon Trainer journey is not something I believe would translate to live-action as well as we might hope, however that doesn’t mean other stories within the universe wouldn’t. I think, with a good team of writers, new and original stories could easily be created to showcase just how exciting and wonderful this fantasy world can be, and that’s a prospect I’m excited to think about.
Detective Pikachu is silly, fun, and most of all entertaining. It’s absolutely a love letter to die-hard Pokémon fans across the world, but not so heavy-handed that it becomes inaccessible to non-fans. This is a movie that anyone could enjoy for what it is, especially younger children, and could honestly be a great way to get kids into the Pokémon franchise entirely. As somebody who is a die-hard fan (I’d say I’m even more than that, if there’s anything that reaches past that), Detective Pikachu was an absolutely joy to watch. It simultaneously brought me back to my childhood, and reinforced my love for the property as an adult. And perhaps most importantly, it made me feel like my love for Pokémon was valid.
And in case you were wondering: yes, you find out why Tim can understand Pikachu. And yes, it makes sense and it’s fantastic.
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