As a piece of storytelling, the live-action Pokémon movie Detective Pikachu fails spectacularly. Warner Bros. has the impossible task of trying to make the film appealing and likable for a movie-going audience that extends beyond nostalgic adults reminiscing over their trading cards, and kids caught up in their current Pokémon obsession.
Detective Pikachu can’t ever hope to achieve what The Pokémon Movie, a 1999 animated classic that saw children drag their less-than-enthused parents into theaters around the country, did for fans of the game. The Pokemon Movie was a rare jewel that found emotional depth in a superficial topic. Detective Pikachu, on the other hand, is an attempt to be more than a video game adaptation that pays homage to Pokémon — the creators clearly want to turn its pokémon into actual characters, in a world that doesn’t find them exceptional at all.
But in the effort to define pokémon by something other than their ability to be cute, weird game devices, director Rob Letterman and the film’s five-man story and writing team pull off an undeniably magical feat. Detective Pikachu is the first post-Pokémon movie. It recognizes that people know who Pikachu is, what a Pokémon battle consists of, and how humans interact with their pocket-monster pals. That lets Pokémon exist in the movie’s background, making that existence unremarkable in the process.
This simple, grandiose act of not treating Detective Pikachu like an origin story creates a world where Pokémon are a normal part of everyday life, which is what the original games taught young players a perfect, Pokémon-filled world looked like. Humans and monsters living in harmony — that’s the vision that comes to life in this live-action reimagining of the Pokémon world. Detective Pikachu isn’t well-constructed or a compelling mystery, but it is a wonderful dream come true, a strong and memorable vision of what a world populated by Pokémon could become.
Detective Pikachu is a traditional whodunnit story, except that it replaces the femme fatale with an electric yellow mouse. Tim (Justice Smith) is investigating his father’s disappearance, and he winds up partnered with a strange Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) to try and retrace his dad’s last steps before he vanished. Their investigation leads them to budding news reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), her Pokémon bud Psyduck, and a much bigger story.
There aren’t any gasp-inducing twists or turns in Detective Pikachu; the film’s entire plot is guessable within the first 25 minutes, which isn’t surprising, considering it’s aimed at kids and tweens. It’s not a head-scratching mind-bender, and it isn’t supposed to be. Instead, Detective Pikachu is a fever dream — a product of night time car rides with a Game Boy, staring up at the street lamps that pass you by, painting the darkened sky with wild imaginations of what a world full of Pokémon might feel like. Detective Pikachu is a silly, almost hallucinogenic ride.
An emotional connection to established characters is a prerequisite for most entertainment these days, but unlike franchises like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, the world of Pokémon outside of the original 151 characters is still niche. That’s a wild insinuation — Pokémon Go is a worldwide phenomenon, and the Pokémon games have been part of people’s lives for decades.
Even so, the names of strange-looking creatures, scaly and fuzzy, monstrous and adorable alike, don’t exactly roll off the tongue. Terms like “ghost-type” are still more foreign to the non-gaming mainstream than “wizard” or “Jedi.” Grandparents know the name Luke Skywalker or Harry Potter, but it’s unlikely they know what a Lickitung is, or whether it’s a condition that requires a doctor’s intervention. The comparative nicheiness of the video gaming world used to get in the way of a good Pokémon movie. Not Detective Pikachu.
The humans are the foreign creatures in Detective Pikachu, not the creatures who roam around countrysides and live within the concrete jungle of Rime City. This isn’t a story about pokémon aiding in a gamified catch-’em-all journey, governed by the slightly narcissistic actions of a Pokémon trainer. Detective Pikachu puts Pokémon plights first, and uses the creatures’ interactions with human partners as a chance to examine the Pokémon perspective and what it’s like to live as one of them.
This is the first time a live-action movie based around Pokémon has treated its main attraction as the star characters they’re meant to be. Previous Pokémon movies always leveraged the perceived relationship between trainers and their brood of creatures as a way of getting a human protagonist to the end of a chosen journey. This made the films more relatable, and allowed for a lot of storytelling depth, but it sacrificed any focus on the most unique elements in a Pokémon story, by reducing the pokémon themselves to adorable weapons.
Detective Pikachu’s approach combines the best of rare Pokémon films, like The Pokémon Movie, with the strengths of the main game franchise. This is a world where Pokémon aren’t enslaved, where their relationships with trainers and average, everyday people is more akin to close friendships between pals than a power struggle between owner and pet.
This simple approach to a Pokémon story is what keeps Detective Pikachu fresh enough to stand out for longtime fans. The film embraces the inherent goofiness of a world full of pocket monsters, and leans into the absurdity of that world instead of trying to normalize it or turn pokémon into some huge, significant metaphor. Pokémon has always relied on the intimate relationship between players and their creatures, and Detective Pikachu follows that train of thought by honing in on Pikachu and Tim’s day-by-day blossoming friendship. Even at its most absurd, the film is still funny and endearing.
Part of the gamble on this kind of project — films that use heavy CGI to create fantastic beasts — is that they’re so heavily reliant on performances. Ryan Reynolds is Detective Pikachu’s not-so-secret weapon and route to success. Much like Deadpool before it, Detective Pikachu uses Reynolds’ uncanny ability to take on wildly silly content, and play it both with straight-faced commitment and like an emotional force of nature. His portrayal of a confused Pikachu, stumbling around a world where the only people who can understand him are other Pokémon and a teenager, is astounding.
It’s preposterous, but he mixes just enough heart into a buckwild character performance that it’s never too over-the-top. His version of Pikachu is more than just a sidekick who follows Tim around. He’s the driving force behind the movie, but he doesn’t ever try to put on a ludicrously serious tone, even during the movie’s more somber moments — he understands that he’s playing a CGI yellow mouse capable of shooting electricity out of his rosy cheeks. He has a blast, and the movie benefits from his obvious enjoyment.
Other cast members, including Smith and Newton, aren’t as charming as Reynolds. They aren’t given the funny material or built as lovable figures, because they’re obviously not the actual stars of the movie. The pokémon are the A-listers people have come to see, and any humans in the film are just being tolerated as support structures. They exist to move Pikachu’s storyline forward, and they do that well enough.
Detective Pikachu’s writing isn’t exactly strong or thought-provoking, but honestly, it doesn’t have to be. This isn’t a timeless work of cinematic genius. Instead, it’s a chance for Pokémon diehards to spend two hours inside a universe many of us have invested years in. It’s a hilarious, carefree, fun romp through a familiar place, and it’s just different enough to add a much needed twist to a formula that was growing tired.