Detective Pikachu's biggest strength is its world
I was 12 years old when Pokémon first crossed the Pacific in 1998, making me the perfect age to get sucked into what became a phenomenon. Between the games, the cards, and the anime series, it felt like suddenly it was everywhere. One of the most popular game franchises of all times, the mesh of a good learning curve in the games, a mix of adorable and “cool” character designs, the collectibility (“Gotta catch ‘em all” is a brilliant merchandising slogan) and a classic hero’s journey framework made the series infinitely relatable to kids like me. Like Harry Potter, which emerged in the United States around the same time, it was a world my friends and I could escape to over and over.
In the succeeding 20 years, I’ve only periodically dipped back into the franchise, playing a game here or there, but not much beyond that. I could probably still name most of the original 151 Pokémon, but my knowledge beyond those first two games is spotty at best. But when the first trailer for Detective Pikachu dropped, I was elated. I was vaguely aware of the game version of this take on the character from a few years ago, which became kind of an internet curiosity in its own right, but it was the look of the trailer that excited me. There is still some kind of visceral delight I get when seeing a fictional world I’ve imagined in my head rendered lovingly for the cinema.
Detective Pikachu also caught my interest because it is such an odd choice for the first live action film in this franchise. Rather than capturing the journey of a Pokémon trainer trying to be the best in the land (the story of each of the core games), it takes a sidestep into the realm of cyberpunk noir. Detective Pikachu is the Blade Runner of Pokémon, a description I write in all seriousness. But it also remains a kid’s adventure film all the same. This is the kind of bold choice we rarely seem to get in franchise filmmaking, and never on the first go-round.
What makes the title Pikachu so special, besides his adorable deerstalker cap, is that he can speak in English (Ryan Reynolds) and be understood by one human, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith). All other Pokémon just say their own name in various intonations as a way to try to communicate with humans. Tim meets this Pikachu in Ryme City, a place where people and Pokémon both roam freely thanks to the plan of industrialist Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), while Tim is trying to put his father’s affairs in order after his death. Pikachu was his dad’s Pokémon partner, and of course Tim never really took to Pokémon, which means we’re also in a buddy cop story. This unlikely partnership also teams up with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), a reporter working for the younger Clifford (Chris Geere), and her Psyduck.
The rest of the story unfolds like a noir-aimed at children, which is to say that there is a resolution to the plot, even if it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Honestly, if there’s any aspect of the film that left me disappointed, is that it feels too loose, taking up some of its runtime to really make sure kids are following the connections in the plot rather than zeroing in on story or giving us more to look at.
But even the slow scenes worked for me because they bring the world to life. The amount of Pokémon in this film is nothing short of abundant, and almost all of them are translated from the cartoon designs of the games into a physical space. This is the first time that Pikachu always looks furry, or Charmander always looks scaly and that the fire on the end of his tail is worth more than decoration (you can cook stir fry over it!). Realizing this world in all its strange glory is the big takeaway from the film, and makes me happy that it took this long, so that we have computer-generated characters that can be this plentiful and well-realized. No one wants a Pokémon movie with only a handful of Pokémon in it! Most of them are also believably placed in their environment as well, which helps to sell the entire thing. For some of the less grounded creature designs, I’m not sure that it is possible to retain the silhouette of the design and place it in the real world, so I’m willing to let it slide here.
The overall design aesthetic of the world shares much in common with other “East-meets-West” films like Big Hero 6 and Pacific Rim, and it’s going to take me a long time before I'm tired of it. Similar to both films, Detective Pikachu takes a sprawling metropolitan city, fills it with neon and rain, adds some adorable creatures and a little bit of the future, and gives me a place I’d love to vacation.
Those similarly enchanted with the world of Pokémon– nostalgic and newcomers alike–will find a fun quirky movie that maybe bends one too many times towards holding the hands of the children in the audience to be a solid recommendation for everyone. But it’s hard to fault the film for trying to have it both ways in terms of target audience. The idea of the film is still stronger than the execution, maybe, but I’ll welcome a risk-taking film that looks this good over a lot of other things coming our way this summer.
Detective Pikachu opens in Philly theaters today.