Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – A new standard for video game movies

Posted on May 14, 2019

NOTE: This review of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is spoiler-free .

Since the reveal of its first trailer featuring a weirdly realistic Pokémon with the voice of Ryan Reynolds, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu had a lot to prove. From retro disasters like the Super Mario Bros movie to the recent nightmare reveal that is Paramount’s Sonic the Hedgehog, gamers have learned the hard way not to put faith in any movie adaptations of beloved video game franchises. Video game films are hard to pull off at the best of times, but Detective Pikachu had it harder than ever: it had to recreate the childhood of millions of 90’s kids worldwide. I mean… Pokémon! In the real world, being part of our lives! The stakes were high.

Often, these video game movies fail because they don’t capture the essence of the franchise they’re trying to recreate. They may have the characters and the setting, but they rarely do the world itself any justice. They’re missing the most important thing: the heart.

This is why Detective Pikachu is so good: it succeeds where all others fail. Just like Pokémon GO before it, Detective Pikachu makes our dreams so close to reality it’s almost torture. This isn’t just our bland reality with some Pokémon super-imposed in: from the first steps protagonist Tim Goodman takes into Ryme City, we can believe without a doubt that this IS the Pokémon world as we’ve always imagined it.

With all that said, is it the perfect video game movie? Well… no. It’s frustrating in a way; it’s on the right track, but it falls short in some key areas that kept it from its full potential. But I’ll leave that for a little bit later. For now, let’s look at the awesome.

A Pokémon paradise

As stated, this movie really makes you believe in the Pokémon world, as well as the setting of Ryme City. The sheer amount and variety of Pokémon in the shots of the film astounded me: whether they’re the focus of the shot or just in the background. The use of Pokémon in the urban setting was very creative, to count a Machamp directing traffic and multiple Loudred blaring music at an underground club among my favourites.

Even Pokémon relegated to the background are fully animated, interacting with the world and each other. And when they are the main focus, the care that has been taken to create each Pokémon really shows. It leaves you with the feeling that Ryme city stays alive even when the cameras move away. I wish there were more of this, and I wish they hadn’t given away so much of the best bits in the trailers.

As well as the busy city scenes, there are also slower, more serene moments that give you a taste of Pokémon among nature. These parts are legitimately breathtaking, and I admit to getting a bit choked up at some parts.

The hero’s that made this movie a success is the visual effect team behind the Pokémon. The best parts of the movie by far are the times the Pokémon themselves are allowed to take center stage. I cannot imagine how much it cost in talent and money to bring each Pokémon to life, but the skill of the visual team cannot be commended enough.

For these reasons alone I would like to say it’s a perfect movie, but sadly, I can’t. Detective Pikachu has indeed cleared the bar for video game movies, but that bar was very, very low. It’s not enough to have a perfect setting: it’s got to have an interesting cast and characters too. And this is where Detective Pikachu loses its momentum.

It’s not all Rose(rades).

Don’t fear; Detective Pikachu’s story is still on par with most of the franchise’s better animated movies. They’ve never been bastions of quality storytelling, but they’re fun adventures with cool ideas and, of course, awesome Pokémon battles. It’s just that flaws are harder to ignore when it’s a live action Hollywood blockbuster and not a cartoon starring Ash Ketchum. As a result, certain plot contrivances and shallow characters drag the film down. From a confusing mystery heavy on the exposition, to the villain’s vague and unclear evil plan, to a female lead memorable only for her Psyduck… it left me slightly disappointed.

If you went into Pokémon: Detective Pikachu hoping for a grand-scale intrigue story, I would agree you were coming with entirely wrong expectations. But I expect a movie that advertises a mystery to at least make sense within its own logic. But by the end I was left with the impression that the movie didn’t expect anyone to think too hard about any of the particulars. And you can argue that it’s not wrong for doing so, being a kid’s movie. Sorry, but I’m a believer that being ‘for kids’ doesn’t excuse a film for lacking a good plot.

Creating a fulfilling mystery was probably not on their list of priorities, to be fair. It was far more vital that they do justice to the Pokemon world we’ve envisioned since 1996, and in that they succeeded.

Tim Goodman and Pikachu, at least, have a great on-screen chemistry. The jokes that are created by their clashing personalities being some of the funniest parts of the movie. Likewise, any scene that has them interacting with other Pokémon are great; my favourites being the Mr Mime interrogation shown in the trailers. If the other human characters had contributed to that chemistry, this movie might have been a masterpiece. But as it is, it just feels lacking.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is one more step up the ladder

Don’t take my criticisms too seriously. The film was still a joy to sit through, and I’ll be looking to get it on Bluray when it’s available. It’s beautiful, it’s funny, it tugs on the heartstrings in almost the right places, and its got a big bad-ass Pokémon fight at the end. It could have been better, but it could have been much, much worse, which in this case is far more important than my problems with it.

At the time of writing, the movie has already amassed more than $170 million USD at the box office. There’s no longer any excuse that video game adaptations aren’t worth being made well: its just up to movie producers to get their act together. There’s more to work on here, but Detective Pikachu should be celebrated for being leagues ahead of the competition. Due to its success we’re all but guaranteed to get a Detective Pikachu 2, so I only hope that this time the writing won’t be so overlooked. Everything else was perfect.