Detective Pikachu had its opening weekend and was able to pull its weight against heavy hitter Avengers: Endgame. In retrospect, that shouldn't be totally surprising. The Pokémon brand certainly stands out as one of the biggest contributors to the box office achievement of Detective Pikachu. That logo alone almost guarantees that a product will grab some attention. Add the sly but charming leading man Ryan Reynolds, fresh off of his turn as the wise-cracking Deadpool, into the mix and an older audience will come to see it out of curiosity. The family-friendly rating ensures that people of all ages will frequent their local theater to take in the unique attraction of a live-action Pokémon film. However, the true secret to Detective Pikachu's success isn't the fact that it branched off of a ridiculously popular franchise. No, the secret is the respect paid to the multi-generations of fans who grew up with Pokémon by their side. This elevates the film to that rare next level; Detective Pikachu stands as a truly decent video game movie.
Don’t worry, this review is spoiler-free.
One of the best moments in Detective Pikachu occurs within the first few minutes. The camera soars above the landscape of an alternate universe, unassuming, like any other movie. However, a key detail stands out. The birds flying alongside the camera are Pidgeots. The camera doesn’t highlight the unassuming winged Pokémon, but instead, the fictitious creatures blend in with the scenery. They look like they belong there, as real as any sparrow or falcon. That sense of grounded belonging hit me hard. I'm definitely a Pokémon nerd, and I'm totally not ashamed to say that seeing this made me tear up, just a little.
Detective Pikachu originated as a 3DS title of the same name that released in Japan in 2016. The handheld game released worldwide in 2018, but did little to impress me. The first trailer for Detective Pikachu failed to grip me in a similar manner. The premise of a crime-solving, talking Pikachu seemed like an odd choice for such a big budget film. Then there were the character designs. Oh wow, the character designs.
Being a live-action affair, Detective Pikachu’s aesthetic choice for the Pokémon that live alongside the human population was to ground them in reality as much as possible. The first trailer showing off these designs didn’t hit me right. Jigglypuff's characteristic innocent blue eyes melted away into horrifically realistic, veiny orbs. Mr. Mime... Mr. Mimed. It all seemed seconds away from a fatal misstep, one that would lead these companion creatures I've known and loved for so long down a dark and creepy path.
However, I am happy to report that director Rob Letterman was able keep the production on the tightrope. Detective Pikachu never slips from the delicate balance that seemed impossible when I first saw the trailer. Much of that is due to the vital piece of the puzzle prevailing in every scene, the Pokémon themselves. Charmander has scales? Wild! While some Pokémon were certainly disturbing, the steady drip of new designs and iconic Pokémon moments kept me curious and engaged. As a lifelong Pokemon fan, I wanted, nay needed more.
Almost the entirety of Detective Pikachu takes place in and around Ryme City. The urban locale brings all kinds of people and Pokémon into close proximity, allowing it to become a character in its own right. The first taste of the city gives the audience an onslaught of Easter Eggs, with Pokémon from across all generations of the games filling in almost every nook and cranny. As a dedicated Pokémon fan, it occurred to me that this might be what heaven looks like. Even if someone hadn’t ever played a Pokémon game before, the incredible sights of Ryme City should prove to be delightful. The special effects provide a seamless visual experience with a steady drip-feed of wonder. It took a lot of love and a substantial understanding of Pokémon’s appeal to create a world this full of marvels.
The plot of Detective Pikachu revolves around Tim Goodman, a young man who encounters a talking Pikachu shortly after the disappearance of his father, Harry. Justice Smith does an admirable job as Goodman, managing to hold his own playing alongside Ryan Reynolds as the titular detective. The two go through a bonding arc over the course of their adventures together that's surprisingly heartwarming. However, the plot becomes secondary to the magical world of the film.
Detective Pikachu stands as a great achievement. It manages to be both a vehicle for nostalgia, effectively conveying the magic that made Pokémon great in the first place while introducing a whole new generation to the franchise. The filmmakers crafted a world where the fluffiness of childhood continues, but holds just enough darkness around the edges to feel real. This is a place where whimsical creatures can be both adorable distractions and participants in a gritty criminal underworld. It’s a world with more similarities to our own that operates with a freedom that many will find a refreshing change of pace from the typical sanded polish of Nintendo’s titles. As strange as it might sound for a film about a talking yellow mouse voiced by Ryan Reynolds, Pokémon has become a bit more real thanks to Detective Pikachu.
Ryme City and its environs become an opportunity to see the Pokémon you’ve always imagined coming to life. It’s a magical opportunity that taps into what made the games so alluring as a kid. Pokémon gripped me in part because it seemed like an ideal world. It was a place where the worst thing that could happen would be a trip to the local Pokémon Center or a missed opportunity to catch that one rare Pokémon. Plus, who doesn’t dream of going on an adventure with a magical best friend? Rob Letterman as well as seemingly everyone working on Detective Pikachu understood this, using the live-action of the film to bridge the gap between that dream and reality. It’s no exaggeration to say that Detective Pikachu helped to heal my cynical Millennial soul, if only just a little. If that isn't an endorsement, then I don't know what else could be.
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