REVIEW: Pokémon – Detective Pikachu (2019)

Theatrical Release Poster – Warner Bros.

The following is a review of Pokémon – Detective Pikachu — Directed by Rob Letterman.

There are going to be plenty of reviews out there that come from the perspective of someone who knows nothing or very little about the world of Pokémon. But that isn’t my perspective. That isn’t my review. For as long as I can remember, Pokémon has been a part of my life. I’ve played and replayed the games, I’ve had tons of trading cards, and I loved to watch the anime with my sister. For this reason, I want this review to be playful with these little references and inside jokes. So, if you’ll indulge me, then please read along.

Pokémon was a huge part of my childhood, and, with that in mind, I have to say that even though Detective Pikachu didn’t rock my world, I thought it was a very enjoyable but safe start to a live-action North American series. I have a lot of issues with the film, but I’m surprised this film works as well as it does. It isn’t perfect, but it’s more than enough for me as a starting point for a live-action film series.

Detective Pikachu is based on and inspired by the Nintendo 3DS game of the same name as well as the entirety of the Pokémon media franchise. Rob Letterman’s film follows Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith), a former Pokémon enthusiast who has lost his love of the monsters, as he goes to Ryme City to investigate the disappearance of his father, Harry. While going through Harry’s apartment, Tim is shocked to discover a talking Pikachu with a little deerstalker hat. This Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) has lost his memory but has deduced that he used to be the Pokémon partner of Tim’s father. Together they investigate Harry’s disappearance as well as the origins of the mysterious rampage-inducing drug known as ‘R,’ a vial of which was found in Harry Goodman’s apartment.

If Ash Ketchum sounds like an obscure condiment to you, or if you don’t know what the point of a Poké ball is, then you are absolutely going to be confused with Detective Pikachu. You are expected to go along with the idea that you can live beside these absurd animals that you also try to collect by capturing them inside of tiny balls that you throw at them. Though the film includes lengthy sections with expository dialogue, I think there is a good chance that those unfamiliar with the basics of Pokémon will have a tough time following the plot in Detective Pikachu.

If, however, you know what the Kanto region is, then you will be thrilled by the glorious world on-screen. Watching Pokémon direct traffic, serve drinks, serenade drunk bargoers, solve crimes, and walk around with their human partners is, honestly, a lot of fun. It feels alien but it feels more real than it maybe should. Pretty much every one of the Pokémon looks great, even though they’ve been given so-called ‘realistic’ character re-designs. Spotting Squirtle in the background of many scenes was pretty much everything I wanted from the movie. It is the wonderful feeling of getting a glimpse at a world full of Pokémon that you go into the movie to experience and you get that in spades.

The best thing about the film is, without a doubt, Ryan Reynolds and the convincing facial animations on his character. Though most of the human characters are thinly drawn caricatures, you do end up caring about Reynolds in part because of his Pokémon’s cute looks, but perhaps more so than anything else the brilliant voice-over performance that breathes some very limited adult humor into the film. Is Detective Pikachu just a young audience’s version of Ready Player One and Deadpool with these colorful and cute monsters? Well, sort of, but it’s also got a little bit of film noir and science fiction to it, though it doesn’t quite embody those genres enough to earn a full Blade Runner-comparison from me.

This is a family film meant specifically for young audiences and those who are young at heart or particularly nostalgic. Detective Pikachu is meant for those who love the franchise. This is, of course, something we knew beforehand. As a big fan of the franchise, though, I will specify some larger issues that I had with the film. I think the major complicated battle in the third act is resolved too easily. I think the human characters are bland and I think the expository dialogue can be a little bit tiring. My biggest problem with the film, though, is just how predictable it is. You’ll be able to guess multiple late reveals very early in the film. Nevertheless, though it isn’t saying much, this is probably the most successful video game adaptation we’ve seen yet.

Even though no one asked for an adaptation of the Detective Pikachu-video game, I think Warner Bros. made a smart choice with its first Pokémon-film — its starter Pokémon, so to speak — as it does a lot of leg-work for them so that they’ll be ready for the franchise’s next evolution going forward. Just like with Eevee’s evolutionary chain, there are many ways they can go from here. As it stands, Rob Letterman’s Detective Pikachu is a delightful journey into the world of Pokémon that, in spite of some significant issues, hits most of the right notes thanks to excellent world-building, great visual effects, a super effective approach, and a charming voice-over performance.

7 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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