Breaking news: video game movies don’t exactly have the best track record. Between the infamous Super Mario Bros. Movie and the dozens of attempts that have followed, very few have managed to live up to their source material, much less manage to become entertaining movies in their own right.
Given the astronomical popularity of the Pokemon brand, it’s only natural that many fans looked to Detective Pikachu, a less than direct adaptation of an atypical game, to show the world that the whole concept of adapting video games to the big screen wasn’t fundamentally flawed. There have been multiple beloved animated films released, so why couldn’t a live action one tap into that same market with a little bit of nostalgic magic?
The good news is that, for fans, Detective Pikachu will likely satisfy that itch. It’s dense with easter eggs, callbacks, homages, and inside jokes. The CGI renderings of everybody’s favorite pocket monsters (from multiple generations, it should be added) are realistic enough to feel mostly at home next to physical humans without losing their cartoony charm. Perhaps best of all, it usually doesn’t waste its time taking everything too seriously.
The bad news is, for most everyone else, they’ll likely find themselves either scratching their heads in confusion or searching for a reason to care.
The premise is simple enough: A young man named Tim tries to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his estranged father with the help of said father’s amnesiac Pokemon partner: the titular Detective Pikachu. It’s a fun setup for some hijinks and adventure, and certainly never tries to reach for anything that could risk confusing its PG audience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially given the rather dark tone of Avengers: Endgame, the other “child-friendly” film currently showing.
The issue arises when Detective Pikachu repeatedly and consistently defies one of the cardinal rules of storytelling: “show, don’t tell.” Instead, the film seems to push all of its chips forward in a bet on “show, then tell at least once using the most front-facing exposition possible.” I know it’s a movie directed at children (and I would probably have a far less favorable opinion of the film were it geared explicitly towards 20-somethings), but kids aren’t stupid. The Lego Movie was for young audiences, and it managed to include a surprisingly deep and impactful meta-narrative that made an already fun film even more impressive. Shazam should have been the most unwatchable piece of shlock ever, but it was absolutely delightful and endearingly earnest.
That having been said, there’s no denying that Detective Pikachu is, generally, just a lot of fun to watch. Most of the gags drawn from the traits of specific Pokemon land (if you’re familiar with the source material), the tone is lighthearted, and, for better or for worse, the film retains a lot of the corniness that made the TV shows and animated movies so much fun to watch as kids. Emotions are frequently overexaggerated, dialogue is uniformly unsubtle, and most scenes lean into the inherent absurdity of the world of Pokemon. This does occasionally make the live action movie feel at odds with itself, but rarely detracts from the overall experience in a meaningful way.
The one area where this (purposeful or unpurposeful) adherence to the goofy nature of the cartoons can really sting is the script. There are many lines that feel bizarre coming from a proven actor like Ken Watanabe (Lt. Yoshida), and do absolutely no favors for younger performers like Justice Smith (Tim). Easily the character most betrayed by the screenwriters is Lucy (played by Kathryn Newton), whose most notable achievement is to do precisely nothing relevant until it’s far too late while acting as a metaphorical carrot dangling in front of Tim’s face because, you guessed it, she’s “the girl.”
If there’s one single aspect of Dectecive Pikachu that I walked away from with virtually no complaints, it was the decision to cast Ryan Reynolds as the title character. Skeptical as I initially was, Reynolds unequivocally proved that his Deadpool act can A) work in a PG movie, and B) breathe life into a character famous for saying only their own name. His fast-paced quips and seemingly improvisational speech patterns stand head and shoulders over (almost) every other line written for and spoken in the film, and make the character an absolute joy to be around.
No matter how hard the underwritten actors work or how much charisma Reynolds throws at the screen, it can’t change the fact that the plot, simple as it is, is both predictable and prone to at least one pretty hysterical twist. The predictability can conceivably be written off as symptomatic of its rating and intended audience, but just about every single emotional beat felt forced and unnatural, which is not a problem that relates to age. And the final twist (which was similarly predictable) felt just as uneven, with the added bonus of being kind of stupid.
Before I wrap up, I feel compelled to complain about one more thing which comes down pretty hard in favor of Detective Pikachu. If Legendary Pictures can produce a film all about a boy holding a small, furry CGI character, then HBO can let John Snow pet Ghost. I feel betrayed.
Is Detective Pikachu destined to break the video game movie curse? I have no idea. Is it generally better than most other films that fall under that dubious umbrella? Yeah, I can comfortably say so. Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. Is it an entertaining movie, warts and all? I believe it is. Is it a great movie? Probably not.
Then again, for what it’s meant to achieve, does it really have to be?