In my review for 2019’s criminally underrated The Kid Who Would Be King (still not a fan of that title), I lamented the dearth of classic family adventures like the ones Joe Johnston was so good at directing during the 1990s. What I’d neglected to remember was that we’d actually gotten a fairly good and fairly nostalgic family adventure a few years ago in the adaptation of R.L. Stine’s expansive and crude children’s horror series Goosebumps. That film, starring a wonderfully game Jack Black, had Johnston’s DNA all over it, and played as a reverse Jumanji, where all the untold horrors from Stine’s creative mind were unleashed from their book prisons to wreak havoc upon classic, homely suburban Americana. Since most children and family entertainment has been pretty dire of late, it’s always especially noteworthy when something good rolls around for discerning moviegoers who just happen to have kids. Goosebumps was just that, and now that same director, Rob Letterman, has utilized a famous and popular franchise for adaptation once again with Pokémon Detective Pikachu, which is another great pick for families, albeit a particularly weird one.
The film is actually based off two separate Nintendo properties. Firstly, the Pokemon franchise at large, which is almost twenty-five years old and is still going strong in terms of popularity all these years later. In fact, the global-sensation might have even more visibility than ever before thanks to a particularly annoying phone app. Otherwise, the series’ bread and butter has always been in its handheld video game adventures, and one of those spinoff games, also named Detective Pikachu, served as the basis for this, the first live-action adaptation of Japan’s impossibly strange and addictive franchise. It’s exactly what it sounds like — Pikachu dons a deerstalker cap, talks like a human this time around, and solves Pokémon related mysteries. Guess you can’t ever be mad at something for being as advertised.
But it does make sense why Letterman and his creative team would focus on this spinoff rather than try to tackle a mainline Pokemon game. For starters, the original adventure games don’t have this really essential thing for filmmaking… plot. If video game adaptations extensively struggle with anything, it’s finding ways to turn their interactive origins into compelling film narratives. But Detective Pikachu sidesteps that by using one of the games that actually lends itself to a narrative approach. Secondly, the chosen story allows for a better integration of live-action actors and the computer-generated Pokémon that also inhabit the world. And that last part is important, because Detective Pikachu is never better than when they’re introducing the next gloriously odd and sometimes uncanny batch of Pokémon, who are fantastically designed.
Speaking of the plot, the film follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who receives word of his detective father’s death. Traveling to Ryme City, a place made famous for allowing humans and Pokemon to coexist (side note: the sequence where we first see Ryme City is absolutely spellbinding) in order to take care of some last minute affairs, Tim finds a Pikachu in his dad’s apartment who can, of all things, talk. Together, along with the help of journalist intern Lucy (Kathryn Newton) and her headache-prone Psyduck, Tim and Pikachu realize that his dad’s death was a cover up for a large conspiracy involving experimentations that could put the whole world at risk. Along the way, Tim struggles with the past, particularly overcoming his strained relationship with his dad, the death of his mom, and his own loneliness in life.
The narrative’s far better than any other video game adaptation to date (in fact, the film itself is the best of that bunch by an extreme landslide), but the majority of the film’s problems do unfortunately lie within the storytelling. The plot’s a bit of a jumbled mess at times, managing to be both cursory and convoluted all at once. It’s not impossible to follow what’s happening, but there’s a muddled approach to pulling at the thread that makes the central mystery a little less compelling than it should be. The final twenty minutes are also a bit of a mixed bag, with a few last minute revelations that’ll either grate or move you. There’s just no in-between, it seems. The human characters are also pretty underwhelming, but they aren’t entirely without merit, and the actors are clearly having a blast with the material in a way that you don’t see in many live-action blockbusters nowadays.
But where the film succeeds is in its pacing, which is actually perfect. Without fail, there’s something new and exciting happening every ten minutes to ensure the film never falls into a particular pattern or a rut. That could be a plot development of some kind, or just the introduction of a new Pokémon that plays a role in the central mystery. My personal favorite of these is an interrogation with a mute Pokémon named Mr. Mime, whose profession you can probably glean from its name. By far the funniest scene in the film, it’s a great way to advance the narrative while also exploring the oddities of this world and all the bizarre little inhabitants in it.
Speaking of which, the Pokémon themselves are the best part of the film, particularly Pikachu himself, who is just irresistibly adorable and brought to life by a great vocal performance from Ryan Reynolds. While they’re a bit more monstrous-looking than their animated or pixelated counterparts, there’s something kind of endearing about their grotesque appearance. At any rate, the blend of CG and practical effects used to bring them all to life is top notch, and the filmmakers are clearly having a blast choosing which Pokémon to utilize in their film and figuring how they might be used in a fun way. This leads to plenty of great set pieces, filmed with plenty of vigor and panache. In fact, the film is visually pretty unique for a blockbuster, surprisingly shot on 35mm. This allows the filmmakers to catch the light and colors in a way that gives the film the gloss of an old school noir. It’s like a more bugnuts take on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, another clear inspiration.
I suppose the most pressing question here is whether or not this plays exclusively to fans of the franchise or if it still has appeal to those who couldn’t tell a Jigglypuff from a Psyduck. Unfortunately, since I grew up in the 1990s, where the GameBoy Color was a mandated social monument, I’m perhaps far too familiar with the franchise to give the most accurate verdict. But at the same time, as somebody who grew up watching and loving a particular brand of family adventure films, Detective Pikachu does fit snuggly into that echelon even if you don’t know what Pokémon is. At any rate, it’s the rare kind of modern blockbuster that leans into its own absurdity, features creative visuals, and, best of all, doesn’t blatantly set itself up as part of an extended universe or offer a narrative thread into an inevitable sequel. It’s a proper movie, standing on its own two feet, and it’s very wonderfully reminiscent of a time when that’s all we required from our summer blockbusters.