Yes, it is time for my obligatory anecdote about my relationship with the Pokémon brand! It probably goes without saying that I’m a huge fan of Pokémon because I’m an Asian kid who was born in 1999. Of course I am. I grew up endlessly playing Pokémon Emerald on my Gameboy Advance until my eyes would strain (which probably explains my deteriorating vision) and then go to bed only to wake up at 9 to catch the new episode of the anime show. In 4th grade, everyone called me Ash Ketchum because I had long, thick, and unruly hair that went all over the place. My best friend was a Piplup. I lived and breathed Pokémon. Imagine my excitement when the news broke that Nintendo would finally be letting Pikachu run with his small, little feet on the big screen!
Honestly, I’ve been rooting for Detective Pikachu ever since the first trailer dropped. Nintendo has had a lot of— well, issues adapting their material to new forms of media in the past, and ever since then, they’ve been notoriously protective of their gaming IPs and brands. If they were going to open up and take a risk on this project, in my mind I knew it had to be for a good reason. This makes Detective Pikachu a film of multiple firsts: it’s the first generally well-received mainstream video-game-based-blockbuster, it’s the first film in a very long time to break open the Nintendo IP floodgates, and it’s the first film you’ll see with an emotionally detached, caffeine-addicted Pikachu voiced by Ryan Reynolds. And you’d really think, with all that this movie has to prove, that the cards would be played safe. Well, you really couldn’t be any farther from the truth. Detective Pikachu is surreal, ridiculous, but a heartfelt and warm, piece of popcorn entertainment. It’s also one that assumes you know what the significance of Mewtwo is, so if you have no investment in Pokémon, you really aren’t going to get much out of this.
In many ways, Detective Pikachu is the very last possible version of what I could have imagined a Pokémon movie released in 2019 would look like. Loosely based off of the Nintendo 3DS game, the film follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), whose father mysteriously goes missing before the events of the film. Tim travels to where his father worked, Ryme City, a neon-drenched city in which humans and Pokémon co-exist as equals—no pokéballs, no gyms, just Pokémon integrated into the social ecosystem. During his investigation, he joins forces with his dad’s former Pokémon partner, the talking Detective Pikachu, whom Tim seems to be the only one that can understand. The plot may be simple, and even contrived, but it is just an excuse to get us from set piece to set piece, where the film uses every excuse to show us this rich world we could only ever imagine from pixels on our handhelds.
The ambitious vision of Detective Pikachu is the most amazing thing about it. It’s invigorating and creative to watch how this movie takes the rules of the games and applies it to cinematic form, especially one that’s so deliberately un-Pokémon. The comparison to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is getting thrown around, and for once, I think it’s pretty apt. When I think Pokémon, I think of adorable creatures, fun, colorful worlds, and childhood. If I were behind the camera, I probably would have made a Pokémon movie to reflect that nostalgia. Ryme City is gorgeous and vibrant, yes, but in a seedy, sketchy Blade Runner neo-noir sort of way. The Pokémon that live within it are part cute but slightly off-putting, part disgusting, and part absolutely horrifying. There’s a stretch of this movie that plays like horror, Pikachu says “hell,” and one of the big plot devices is a literal drug that makes Pokémon attack humans! This is one of the strangest ways to debut Pokémon as a brand, to a new generation of fans and to the casual movie-going audience— and yet? It really works.
Major props should be given to the CG teams and the art department involved with this movie because at all times, I actually felt the physicality of these pocket monsters on screen. I glanced at a Squirtle and knew exactly how it would feel to pet it. I noticed a Charmander helping grill food in the marketplace. The effort in immersion goes a long way. I was so lost in the dazzling visual spectacle of Ryme City that I genuinely could not care if the acting occasionally felt stilted, or if the last act felt all over the place in comparison to the rest. There was so much stunning movie magic on display working to the best of its ability to make me feel like a kid again. So, if we can justify Aquaman as a worthy way to spend two hours, I’d say Detective Pikachu more than does its job.
Despite what seems to be an overwhelming amount of emphasis on edge and aesthetics, there’s a sentimental and genuine core to Detective Pikachu that really shines through all the anime-rooted nonsense. This is, after all, a movie about the connection between humans and nature. It’s a tale of companionship and love, and that is what Pokémon, as a brand, has always represented. It’s why the film can make so many wacky and surprisingly morbid choices with its tone but still manages to feel exactly like the world you inhabited from your four centimeter Gameboy screen. So, no matter how corny or downright stupid the movie got, I felt like it was all in service of good-hearted fun, and that’s pretty much the best thing you could ask for from a movie titled Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.