Detective Pikachu Review

When an American live-action Pokémon movie was first announced, my reaction was one of dread. Hollywood live-action adaptations of video games are known for being universally terrible, and it seemed exceedingly unlikely that Pokémon would be the exception - a game series not exactly known for its plot and characters, marketed to children, and generally regarded as simple 90s nostalgia fodder more than fascinating storytelling material.

Here's what I pictured immediately when I heard the announcement: the film would probably be similar in tone to Michael Bay's Transformers. The main character would be Ash Ketchum, but reimagined as an American college dropout. Misty and Brock would be there, with Misty as Ash's love interest and Brock as the obligatory comic relief character. The plot would involve several different legendaries rampaging and Randomly Fighting™, destroying iconic American landmarks, and having to be defeated, and eventually it's revealed that they'd been rampaging as part of a scheme by some human villain that they must also defeat. Ash would have some generic obligatory shallow movie character arc where at the end he probably decides to go back to college or finally confess his love to Misty or something. Everything would be terrible and the movie would be an embarrassment to every Pokémon fan over the age of twelve. I could see the scornful reviews about how the Pokémon franchise can't go away fast enough when I closed my eyes.

So when, instead, it was announced that the movie would be based on Detective Pikachu, a pretty obscure 2016 Japanese-only (at the time) mystery-adventure spin-off title that didn't feature Ash or any other anime character at all, I was baffled but actually cautiously optimistic. They weren't going for the obvious, shallow nostalgia cash-in at all; it wasn't being overseen by ignorant executives who'd demand to have Ash in it because he's the character people recognize. They'd be working with a more story/character-based game, a more reasonable basis for a movie adaptation. Could this movie actually turn out to be decent?

As it turned out, it was more than decent. Detective Pikachu is a genuinely delightful film. To its core it exudes being made by and for people who actually love this franchise with all their hearts - but more than that, it's just a pretty solidly executed movie that happens to be about Pokémon. I'm actually not the biggest fan of what the Pokémon look like in this movie's 'realistic' style - they're fine and I got used to it, but the excessively pronounced realistic texturing actually makes a lot of them look more fake to me, and some of them make design tweaks that just seem to alter the Pokémon's fundamental character a bit in a way that bugs me - but that's not really the main draw of the movie at all in my opinion, and it easily makes up for that with its overall charm.

Our main character, Tim Goodman, is a 21-year-old who used to want to be a trainer but now works in insurance. He grew up with his grandma after his mother died and his father sank himself into detective work; he's bitter and lonely and still kind of resents his dad for not being there for him, though he bottles it up. When he receives news that his father and his Pokémon partner died in an accident, he heads towards his father's home of Ryme City with a lot of conflicted feelings, and only becomes even more conflicted when at his father's apartment he discovers his dad had been hoping to invite Tim to live with him, even preparing him a room to look like his childhood bedroom. Then he unexpectedly meets his father's Pikachu, who survived the accident with a bad case of amnesia and covers up issues with pushing people away and failing those he cares about with a lot of energetic talking. They're joined by Lucy, a mistreated newsroom intern stuck writing listicles while she insistently tries to take herself seriously as a real reporter (with hilariously awkward results), as well as her partner Psyduck, in trying to uncover Pikachu's lost memories and exactly what happened to Tim's dad.

Tim and Pikachu's relationship, and Tim's relationship with his father, form the movie's emotional core. The writers made exactly the right choice in focusing on and centering the movie around these characters and making you care about them and their relationship, and they pretty much nailed it; these characters are genuine people, both Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith do an excellent job in their roles, and there's a real emotional punch to how Tim deals with the loss of his father and Pikachu's efforts to help him. This is the primary reason this movie really works; it's simply a genuinely good character-based story, and given the movie pulled that off, the rest is honestly secondary.

Some of the plot's twists and turns are rather routine and predictable, and the antagonists sadly lack depth and could have done with more development - but there are genuine surprises and clever reveals in there too. More than that, though, there's just an overarching sense of fun to this movie. It's genuinely hilarious (I could have done without the two instances of mild potty humour, but that was mercifully all), and the attention given to portraying the Pokémon world and giving nods to fans of the series is great. This movie should be reasonably comprehensible and enjoyable even to non-fans, but it's clearly made for us, and it does a great job.

Detective Pikachu is not perfect, and I will be nitpicking down in the spoiler section, but overall I honestly just loved it a lot, and I'm unspeakably happy that this is our first live-action Pokémon movie - hopefully to be followed by others that are just as good or even better.

Let's Talk Spoilers

(Obviously, if you haven't seen the movie yet, stop here! I'm about to start talking about ending reveals!)

I played the Detective Pikachu game a year before the movie came out, so that's the perspective from which I came at the movie: in particular, I went into it already knowing that Pikachu was actually Harry. The game, for some reason, stopped just short of actually revealing this, but hinted at it pretty bluntly and early: Harry's coworkers from the detective agency remark on how Harry's Pikachu never used to like coffee or sweets before the accident, but Harry himself did. From there, one could notice that the opening cutscene where we see Pikachu pre-accident showed Pikachu looking and behaving like a normal Pikachu, and piece together that the only way Harry could have ended up in Pikachu's body was if Mewtwo did it somehow - but the game never explained this or established how it might be possible. Overall, one came away from the game with a sort of confused feeling that this had to be what they were getting at one way or another, but still feeling more like a person with a very plausible but speculative fan theory.

The movie does a much, much better job actually setting up this twist and then delivering on it; the hints are subtler but present throughout, with each step of what happened carefully established beforehand so that the viewer can put together exactly what happened, whenever they happen to have that realization (I've spoken to multiple people who figured it out early on as well as several others who were completely blindsided by the reveal). Tim suggests near the beginning that maybe understanding Pikachu is hereditary; it kind of is, but not in the way he thinks. Pikachu is never affected by the R serum; this might seem like a convenient plot hole, but actually makes perfect sense when you learn that the whole point of the R serum is that it renders Pokémon feral while allowing humans to inhabit their bodies without ill effects. Pikachu's issues about failing and betraying the people he cares about are suspiciously similar to Harry's. We learn towards the climax that Mewtwo can transfer the soul of a human into a Pokémon's body. All in all, everything is thoroughly built up to make this revelation satisfying and ensure it makes sense when it happens.

More than that, though, the movie's character focus makes that twist so much more meaningful. By really centering Tim's conflicted feelings towards his dad, Harry's regrets about pushing his son away and wish to reconcile with him, and their growing bond, Pikachu's identity really makes the movie's emotional arc come together, and this is what sells the twist as not just a bizarre gimmick but a whole-hearted part of the story.

Moreover, father/son relationships become the overarching theme of the main plot, with Howard and Roger as foils of sorts for Harry and Tim - another solid adaptational choice, where originally in the game Roger was simply the real villain and Howard was not a character.

Although I appreciate that foil aspect, I do find Howard and Roger rather underdeveloped as I mentioned above, which is a shame. Howard's motivation to find a way to transfer his mind into a body that's not only healthy but powerful, as he feels ousted from status and relevance thanks to his illness, is pretty coherent and potentially interesting (though leaning on some unfortunate disability tropes), but it's a lot harder to see why he makes the leap from there to hatching an incredibly elaborate plot to transfer everyone in Ryme City into the bodies of their partner Pokémon without their consent - sure, he runs a city that's all about humans and Pokémon living in harmony, but this is a pretty clear stretch of that concept, and there isn't much of an effort to get this final plan to make real sense from his point of view. This aspect of the plot feels constructed purely in order to 1) adapt the Pokémon Parade part of the game (originally, this was just an attempt to create a huge exclusive scoop for Roger's news network), and 2) set up Mewtwo's ability to transfer humans into Pokémon bodies, and while 1) makes for a neat setpiece and 2) is a vital bit of setup as I've gone into, it could really have used stronger actual story justification. Meanwhile, Roger is just a pretty flat character, set up as a generic douchebag and then, after the true villain reveal, quite suddenly reformed; he feels more like a cardboard cutout than a person, only gets a few stereotypical lines, and all in all doesn't make use of the full potential of the foil setup, which is a real shame.

The villain fake-out is quite predictable; some who played the game may be fooled by the assumption that the final villain will be the same as there, but even if you did play the game, it's not hard to pin Howard's character as suspect more or less from the start. On the other hand, I absolutely bought that Roger was also involved when we saw him capturing Mewtwo in the forest, and the Ditto reveal was a moment of pure delight. That's honestly one of the biggest moments where the film truly sells that it was made by genuine fans, I think: a non-fan screenwriter would probably either not have given Ditto the ridiculous dot-eyes or else made Ditto a comic relief character altogether, because it just sounds so silly on paper, but this is exactly what actual Pokémon fans wanted to see, and it is glorious.

It might have been nice to see a bit more of Mewtwo; it has a pivotal role in the plot as a tragic and abused figure, but we only hear it actually speak a few lines, leaving it kind of sidelined. Since the movie decided to broach the topic of Mewtwo thinking all humans were bad until it met Harry, it would have been nice to develop that a bit more - if they weren't going to develop it, I think they'd have been better off skipping that line, probably.

Lastly, both the movie and the game have Pikachu unable to use Electric moves for most of the story, only to develop the ability towards the end (because, of course, he's really a human and has never used electricity before). The movie's story is mostly executed much better than the game, but this is one aspect in which I think the game was better: there, Pikachu figures it out and manages to use a Thunderbolt in his desperation when Tim is about to be hurt, while in the movie, he also figures it out conveniently when he needs it during the climax, but it's simply in order to destroy the balloons with the R serum. The movie's version has no emotional or character component to this moment, and it has no impact - it's just Pikachu conveniently figuring out his powers when the plot needs him to, whereas in the game it was a genuinely sweet climactic moment. It's a really strange choice, I think, for the movie - which is otherwise overwhelmingly more character-focused and lands the character and emotional beats better - to make this change; I assume it ended up this way for logistical reasons as Tim and Pikachu are in different places with different jobs to do during the climax, but I don't think it'd have been hard to arrange things to let something like the original moment from the game happen anyway, and it'd have made it much better and more impactful.

On the other hand: the Charizard was adorable I'm so happy

Page last modified May 14 2019 at 00:00 GMT