Review – Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019)

A person would have to be a true hermit to the fullest extent of the word to not at least be aware of Pokémon in some way, shape, or form. Be it the cards, the video games, the animated films, the television series, or any of the countless forms of merchandise that have been present worldwide since the 1990s, it was really only a matter of time before we got a live-action movie. With a series focused on catching, training, and competing with a variety of fantastical creatures, the form this live-action debut comes in is surprising (to say the least), but as we’ll get into, it may be the best way it could have made the jump. Add to that the fact that almost every video-game film adaptation is largely hated by film critics everywhere, and that’s a lot of reason to see how this film fares.

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Pokémon Detective Pikachu (and its oddly specific name) wasn’t made up all on its own for the screen. No, the film is a loose adaptation of the Nintendo 3DS title of the same name. In that game and this film, we follow a deerstalker-wearing Pikachu, solving the mysterious disappearance of Harry Goodman. This search puts him alongside Harry’s son, Tim, and through their investigation, we learn more about a world filled with Pokémon and their continued place in such a world. A quick watch of a trailer for the film initially blew my mind that Ryan Reynolds voices Pikachu, and yet, of course, he does! It’s exactly the type of bonkers casting that is crazy enough that it just might work, and I’ll say that it is one of the biggest strengths of this film.

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While Reynolds has a career that holds many financial flops, following the runaway success of Deadpool, he is likely to have few failures ever again. Pairing his star power with this brand initially seems unconventional, but it only takes a few lines to realize that it works incredibly well for connecting with the broadest possible film audience. It’s only by the film’s end that we understand why it makes sense from a story perspective, and it made the entire journey even better for me personally. Still, by then, we’ve fallen in love with the character for the humor and charm Reynolds brings, beyond the impossible cuteness inherent to the character design. While Pikachu is by far the most instantly recognizable Pokémon, this film’s world is absolutely brimming with creatures, well-known or otherwise, and it’s that variety on-screen that will dazzle audiences, whether they are closely familiar with the series or not. That fact that there are hundreds of Pokémon in the games makes it very easy to stuff frames full of them, and director Rob Letterman capitalizes on it, while still keeping many for whatever follows.

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Joining Reynolds in the lead is Justice Smith as Tim Goodman. While the jury is still out on whether he has what it takes to be a full-on leading man, I will say that he worked fairly well in 2018’s mostly lackluster Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and here, he is given far more to do and to better effect. Smith can play funny and likable, and even better, he can hold his own against the infinitely funny and likable Reynolds. That’s a glowing endorsement for his work here, and the two of them make the caper interesting throughout. With that said, just because Pikachu is donning a deerstalker hat, don’t expect these two to be the next Holmes and Watson; the overall mystery of it all will likely leave you disappointed if you are expecting something grandiose. The detective premise works primarily in allowing everyone (Pokémon mega-fan or otherwise) a throughline to be gradually guided through the world of it all and understanding the relationship the creatures play with mankind. It’s a rather genius way of handling it all, and actually, it works far better than the idea of doing a film based on the core series of trainer-based games would go. This “detective” film could very well be the first entry in a series of films based in the world, as it acts as a great jump-off point into much larger possibilities.

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The cast also includes Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, and Bill Nighy. Each help fill out the world in interesting ways that I’ll leave undiscussed to avoid spoilers. The story told is nothing groundbreaking, but I daresay it is far more touching than I would have initially foreseen it being. The heart of the film is a family message, and despite its PG-rated trappings, it’s sweet to the core and more resonant than it has any business being. I expected it to be fun and funny, but this film does buck the trend that video-game adaptations can’t be “good” or “great”, even. That alone makes the film worth some attention because we’re talking about reversing a pronounced film curse that has been going on for decades. I’m relieved to walk out of video game movie, having enjoyed myself and wanting to watch it again. That’s regrettably rare.

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Could the film have delved a little more into the core concepts of the series? Absolutely, but remember the film is called Pokémon Detective Pikachu. It stays absolutely faithful to what it sets out to be in the title. Would I have liked to see more battles, capturing of Pokémon, and just that out in the wild exploration that the series is known for? Again, yes, but the beautiful thing is that the film gives you just enough of these things that the idea of seeing more in any possible sequels is made all the more enticing. The film’s concept and plot make for a very fun story, while those core game ideas are just waiting to be capitalized on down the line. I actually can’t wait to see more, and any longtime Pokémon fan knows that there is so much left to be done by the film’s end, even as the film stays surprisingly close to the Detective Pikachu source material.

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Content-wise, I could have done with less tongue-in-cheek adult humor for the debut of the property to filmgoers. Pokémon may very well be one of the cleanest properties in all of gaming, but I knew that Ryan Reynolds involvement would make this far edgier than the games ever were. Still, the film is PG, not PG-13, so aside from a few mild expletives and some references that will go largely over little ones’ heads, the film is mostly family-friendly. Violence is really only found in some explosions and seeing some head-to-head Pokémon battles that can be intense for little ones. Deeply veiled double entendres are the extent of any sexual content, but parents may be quizzed why they laughed by inquiring young minds.

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For many Christians, the Pokémon property has been problematic, more from hearsay than any real familiarity with it all. I will always err on the side of what parents decide is best for their families, but to that point, I can only say that I have never taken issue with Pokémon for kids spiritually; this film did nothing to change that. In fact, this film’s messages regarding family and grief provide some excellent entry points for discussion with young ones, who realistically are attracted to the film based on the game. Any time a film offers an opportunity to discuss how Scripture relates to its themes is a golden opportunity for me, and this film is no different.

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All-in-all, I highly enjoyed this film, as did my ten-year-old daughter. The fun was expected, but the heart behind it all is what stuck with me. By film’s end, I wanted to watch it all again for the details throughout, and if that doesn’t perfectly fit that “gotta catch ’em all” quality of the series, what does? While it isn’t perfect, it’s about as good as we could hope a debut film like this to be, and I’m excited to see how else Pokémon can be utilized as a film property going forward. Hopefully, anything that might follow will be as lovable as this was.

8.25

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