Each time a new live-action video game adaptation hits the silver screen, critics and gamers alike are forced to answer this very simple question: is it the best video game adaptation ever? Of course, the movie has to be at least mediocre to get this question asked about it; nobody is posing it toward the latest Resident Evil movie (except for, perhaps, me). Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the latest such film, and the answer to that ever-important question, at least for me, is a resounding “maybe.”
The film has a strong opening. It introduces us to our protagonist, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), an early-twenties insurance agent who has no time for Pokémon. Oh, right: for the uninitiated, Pokémon are animals with magical and/or elemental powers that people capture and use to fight each other. Honestly, though, at this point if you don’t know what a Pokémon is, I think that’s on you. Anyway, Tim’s father left him years ago to become a detective, his mother died when he was a kid, and you can bet there are issues he’s going to have to confront regarding his childhood and parents over the course of the film.
Tim gets a call from the police informing him that his father has died in a car crash. He heads to Ryme City, where his father worked, which is a sort of utopia where Pokémon and humans live together peacefully and without the whole dog-fighting analog. His father was a detective. At his father’s apartment, he encounters a Pikachu (a yellow mouse) that, for whatever reason, he can understand (voice of Ryan Reynolds). The Pikachu has amnesia, but believes himself to be Tim’s father’s partner. And if he’s alive, that means Tim’s father may be, too. This leads Tim and this Pikachu on a quest that eventually becomes much bigger than just them, because that’s just how these things go.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu is an adaptation of Detective Pikachu, a handheld video game that was only released in English-speaking territories around a year ago, long after many of the people who were interested in it had forgotten about it – it was released in Japan two years earlier. It’s interesting to see this be the first live-action foray into the Pokémon universe, given its somewhat niche appeal, but this turns out to be a perfectly fine decision for a couple of reasons.
The first is that it doesn’t put the same amount of pressure and expectations on the property that adapting a bigger game or even the Pokémon anime might. We don’t know exactly how it should be, so we’re more accepting of what it has to offer. The film also does a great job at building its world – and even then, it only scratches the surface at the potential that’s here. Like some of the greatest fantasy films, we want to spend as much time as possible in its universe, and it’s able to get by for much of its running time just on that.
The plot is lacking, as are the characters. The mystery is basic and surprisingly easy to figure out, even given the absurdity to the situations that unfold. And I’m sure some people are going to be disappointed in its finale, which is definitely understandable. The acting leaves a lot to be desired. But none of this is terribly important, especially for fans of the franchise.
The way this world and its creatures are realized are going to be enough to draw them in. The hope, of course, is now that this groundwork has been done, the next step forward is to come up with a better plot and populate the world with stronger characters. Only then will we be able to properly have the discussion about whether or not it belongs on the summit of video game adaptations. This one is decent and entertaining but it lacks enough depth to make it any more than baseline satisfying.
Conclusion: Pokémon Detective Pikachu is surface-level entertainment, but is such an inviting world that you’ll likely be engrossed for its entire running time.
Recommendation: If you’re a Pokémon fan, you need to see Detective Pikachu immediately.