Walking into the theater to see Detective Pikachu, I received a pack of two trading cards. Any moviegoer who’s been to a movie based on a trading card property, such as Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh, knows about this merchandising tradition. I’m slightly embarrassed to say that this was actually my initiation into the ritual, the first time I’ve seen one of these movies in theaters. But perhaps I shouldn’t be that ashamed, since these movies have a track records of appealing to few outside of their core fan bases. In fact, movie adaptations of video games in general often prove lackluster. Many consider this a “curse,” as there’s arguably yet to be a video game movie that’s even “good.” I say arguably since Rampage was received moderately well, but was a loose adaptation of its bare bones source material. So, would Detective Pikachu break the curse?
Yes. Looking at the trading cards, I was surprised to find they weren’t your typical ones. In fact, they were borderline joke cards, a Pikachu with the move “coffee break” and a magikarp with the move “do nothing.” While this doesn’t speak well their use in the trading card game, it did bode well for setting the tone for the film I had come to see. Detective Pikachu doesn’t take itself too seriously, and from the promotional cards, to the marketing tactics, to the choice to cast Ryan Reynolds as the titular talking mouse, this notion made itself very apparent. Many video game movies succumb to the problem of painting too broad of a stroke in their film adaptation. Detective Pikachu knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be, and is all the better for it.
The film starts with an image that should come as familiar to many Pokemon fans. Scientists bustle around a chamber containing the mutant psychic Pokemon Mewtwo. Naturally, Mewtwo escapes, and chases down a car leaving the scene. After this, the film charts its own course, bringing us to a young man named Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) trying to catch his first Pokemon. Tim is uncomfortable with Pokemon, possibly fearful of them, and his friend encourages him to try, since most people in this world have a single Pokemon they consider to be their partner. Aside from helping us get to know our protagonist, this intro brought a grin to my face, showing us what it’d look like if Pokemon inhabited our world. Pidgey fly overhead as Tauros graze in a field, and with each Pokemon having a real-life animal analog, it serves as a wonderful wildlife version of magical realism. Through the whole movie, the world-building proves spectacular, as the film makes you believe in this world and maybe even want to live in it.
It isn’t long before Tim finds out that his estranged dad was in that car from earlier, and died in a crash. Tim goes to Ryme City, where Detective Yoshida (Ken Watanabe) tells him that Harry, his dad, devoted his life to his detective work but still loved his son. Going to his dad’s apartment, Tim runs into a Pikachu. The two can understand each other, rare for people and Pokemon. Pikachu has amnesia, but the two piece together that he was Harry’s partner, and set out to find out what happened to him. They run into Lucy (Kathryn Newton), an unpaid reporting intern who is also suspicious of Harry’s death. Together, they team up to solve the mysteries of Harry’s death, if he’s even dead, and why someone would want to cover up the details.
The plot has its strengths and weaknesses. It works best when its lampooning the genre conventions of film noire, with the interrogation, the underground crime syndicate, and the breaking and entering a private location scenes. Each of these spoofs detective movies superbly, aided by Ryan Reynold’s comedic observations as Pikachu. However, these vignettes are held together by a flimsy overarching plot. Rather than having one scene lead naturally into the other, characters or circumstances will often arise out of nowhere to propel the film to its next humorous segment. For example, a scene involving underground Pokemon battles, a visual delight, ends with the police showing up and escorting our heroes elsewhere. The film culminates in a third act that suddenly adds complexity to the relatively simple plot, and doesn’t quite gel with the rest of the film. It seems like the filmmakers had a lot of fun for much of the film, and then suddenly realized they had a mystery to solve and rushed to force a bunch of pieces together instead of letting them fall into place. In spite of the fact that evidence and clues get pulled out of nowhere, many people may figure out exactly where the story is headed based on tropes and genre conventions.
Rob Letterman directs a movie that really shines in its lifelike portrayal of a video game world. Video game movies usually fail due to over committing to their source material or going too far off the rails in an attempt at originality, and Detective Pikachu finds a nice balance right in between. The characters of Tim and Lucy seem a little too much like stock characters for a while, but Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton are able to bring out various sides to them as the movie progresses. And as Detective Pikachu himself, Ryan Reynolds seems to be having a blast. I wondered if any of his lines were improvised, but either way he delivers jokes a mile a minute in his casual deadpan tone. Sure, there are shades of Deadpool in their, but ultimately there’s something a little more vulnerable about the detective that is enough to make him feel like a different character.
Detective Pikachu may have its flaws, but there’s no doubt that it’s a good video game movie, if not a great one. Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures have already announced a sequel, and if Detective Pikachu is any indication, there’s no need to worry about future live-action Pokemon movies. Hopefully other studios take note on the template that this flick provides on how video game movies should go. But for now, Detective Pikachu is the very best, like no one ever was.
Detective Pikachu shows how a video game movie should be done. It’s not perfect, and suffers from a weak plot and odd ending. It succeeds in its world-building and dialog, each of which is packed with references and jokes that can’t all be caught on a single viewing. There’s a lot of fun to be had, from the exciting depictions of Pokemon in our world to the satisfying parodies of detective movies.