For twenty years and counting, Pokemon fans has captured the hearts and minds of generations of people all over the world with its charming universe full of fantastical creatures, addictive adventure, and unparalleled sense of wonder. It may come as a surprise, but Pokemon is actually the most profitable franchise of all time, even outstripping Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When it was announced that the first ever live-action Pokemon movie would be an adaptation of Detective Pikachu, a lesser-known spin-off of the main video game series, fans–myself included–raised an eyebrow. Naturally, we wanted it to be the very best, like no film ever was–a seemingly Sisyphean task for video game movies, which are perceived as almost universally terrible.
So, did Detective Pikachu break the dreaded video game movie curse that began way back with 1993’s exceptionally ill-advised Mario Bros.? To borrow a phrase, it’s super effective.
Eschewing the familiar faces of characters like Ash, Misty, and Brock in favor of Detective Pikachu was a massive gamble, but the film’s outsized charms, rock-solid emotional core, and fantastic world-building paid off in spades. The result is a sweet, family-friendly film that fully realizes what Pokemon fans have dreamed of for more than twenty years. Through meticulous visual effects wizardry, a delightfully dry sense of humor, and an abiding love of pulp and noir, director Rob Letterman and his creative co-conspirators have created a world where Pokemon actually feel like living, breathing creatures. It’s hard not to find oneself caught up in the magic of Ryme City or want to give Detective Pikachu a snuggle when he’s feeling dejected.
Voiced by Ryan Reynolds (much to the chagrin of Danny DeVito stans), Detective Pikachu is hot on the trail of his missing partner, Harry Goodman. Enlisting Harry’s son Tim (Justice Smith), the dynamic duo navigates the seedy underbelly of Ryme City, a futuristic mixture of London, Tokyo, and San Francisco. There, humans and Pokemon coexist peacefully, working side-by-side, rather than the usual series practice of trapping Pokemon inside of small, spherical prisons. What they discover, though, is a sprawling mystery that takes them from underground Pokemon fight clubs to high-tech research laboratories. Along the way, they join forces with plucky wannabe investigative journalist Lucy (Kathryn Newton) and her perpetually stressed Psyduck to save the day from powerful forces beyond their control before it’s too late.
For anyone who has played the game–as well as viewers with an eye for storytelling–the film’s plot won’t exactly keep you guessing. It’s a relatively straightforward affair and moves at a brisk pace, rarely pausing to catch its breath. Detective Pikachu‘s major plot twists are clearly telegraphed and supporting characters like Omar Chaparro’s cartoonish club owner Sebastian and Rita Ora’s research scientist feel tacked-on to add additional star power. On occasion, the film’s tone oscillates suddenly and wildly in a manner that makes you feel like certain characters are in different movies. However, the core dynamic between Detective Pikachu and Tim Goodman is so compelling and emotionally fulfilling that my gripes pale in comparison.
While some initially balked at Reynolds’ portrayal of Pikachu, comparing it to a PG version of his turn as Deadpool, the veteran voice actor delivers a genuinely affecting performance that is punctuated by moments of glib sarcasm and deadpan wit, which feel true to the character in the context of the film. Also worthy of plaudits is Justice Smith, who brings such warmth and relatability to Tim Goodman, serving both as audience surrogate into this wild world and hapless hero who must rise to the occasion and overcome deep-seated psychological scars. There must have been a grass-type Pokemon lurking somewhere in the theater because I found myself getting surprisingly misty-eyed at several moments during the movie.
Detective Pikachu‘s visuals are nothing short of stunning and almost inconceivably shot on film at director Rob Letterman’s behest, which lends a certain warmth to the many, many computer generated characters and expertly plays into the film’s noir vibe. Featuring 60 Pokemon (out of a staggering roster of 800), Detective Pikachu feels fully fleshed out in a way I didn’t expect. The film is teeming with action-packed set pieces, but the choreography of it all never feels muddy or difficult to track, even at its most overwhelming. One such sequence that is briefly hinted at in the trailers feels like a clever mixture of Inception and Godzilla: King of the Monsters; another featuring a pack of Bulbasaurs guiding Tim and a wounded Detective Pikachu through a forest exudes Studio Ghibli vibes in the best way possible.
While Detective Pikachu doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of storytelling, it has managed the seemingly impossible of creating a deeply satisfying and fully realized world based on something with so much fan expectation and preconceived notions attached to it. You’ll laugh, (if you’re like me) you’ll cry, and you’ll leave the theater with a Snorlax-sized smile on your face. In a world of swirling chaos, never-ending vitriol, and constant horror, Detective Pikachu and its story of fractured family and finding oneself are a welcome reprieve.
Also, Mr. Mime’s “hair” is actually a pair of horns. If I have to live with that knowledge, so do you.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Detective Pikachu hits theaters on May 10, 2019.
Images: Warner Bros/Legendary
Editor’s note: Nerdist is a subsidiary of Legendary Digital Networks