Detective Pikachu is a Video Game Film That Gets it Right

By Laura Kate Dale on at

Over the past few months, from the moment the first trailer dropped, I've been trying not to get my hopes up about Detective Pikachu. Trailers can be misleading. We know most video game films turn out pretty poorly. And any film that seems like it's going to be carried by a single cast member can often struggle. The trailers seemed promising, and that just made me all the more intent to temper my expectations.

Having now watched Detective Pikachu, I can say that I walked away largely impressed. Sure I have some minor nitpicks, but for the most part, people were right to get excited about this film. It's not only funny and heartwarming, but it succeeds in bringing to life a world where I can  believe Pokémon exist alongside humans.

Detective Pikachu is, without a doubt, the first video game movie that truly gets it right, and manages to break the cycle of bad video game films.

The overarching plot of Detective Pikachu is simple: a young man, Tim Goodman, is informed that his father Harry has passed away, and goes to clear up his belongings and say goodbye. Tim doesn't have a Pokémon of his own due to some emotional baggage, making him a fish out of water in Ryme City, the town where his father's apartment is. He arrives, finds some clues hinting at his father's death being part of a cover-up, and meets his father's old partner Pokémon, Pikachu. Tim and Pikachu can understand each other, which is unusual, and Pikachu doesn't remember who he is. Tim and Pikachu team up to work out what happened to Harry.

Ryan Reynolds absolutely steals the show as Pikachu, offering a performance that's consistently both amusing and endearing. He pulls off a range of emotions from sincere to comedic in such a way that I could scarcely imagine anyone else in the role. Sorry to those of you who wanted Danny DeVito Pikachu; I don't think DeVito had this performance in him. Justice Smith, who plays Tim Goodman, plays the straight man to Reynolds' comedy act perfectly, offering just enough resistance to create a playful but not antagonistic conflict. The fact that he so rarely gives Reynolds' Pikachu an inch makes it all the more impactful as the pair's relationship develops over the course of the movie. Smith's performance as Tim is full of genuine heart and soul, which really helps to ground not only Reynolds' over-the-top performance, but also the world that surrounds the pair.

The movie's two other key performances are that of Kathryn Newton, who plays a young intern at a news agency, and Bill Nighy, who plays the visionary behind Ryme City, a city where Pokéballs and Pokémon battles are forbidden in an attempt to encourage a less violent partnership between people and Pokémon. Newton plays her scenes well, even if she does very little besides act as a convenient way to progress the plot when our primary pair are lost. Nighy gives a decent performance, even if his role potentially falls into some trope territory from time to time.

It's a pretty simple core premise – this is a detective mystery film for kids, after all, and as a result, the overarching plot is somewhat predictable. The movie offers a little more closure than the ending of the Detective Pikachu 3DS game, making this work much better as a standalone story without a need for sequels, but you'll undoubtedly see the film's ending coming from a mile away; the signposting is not subtle. It's also worth noting that the opening – before Tim meets Pikachu – has a very different energy to the rest of the film. It's a slow expositional setup and, while well-presented, not at all what I was expecting. You need to be ready for a film that takes time to be serious before Pikachu's arrival – it's where much of the emotional core is established.

While Detective Pikachu's overarching plot may be a little simple, that's not to say that the action is predictable moment to moment. From plot points spelled out just early enough to be forgotten for later reveals, to the movie's willingness to play around with implications above its family-friendly age rating, the movie takes some creative risks that pay off. For example, while a children's detective movie can't show a violent witness interrogation, it can sure as heck get a mime to imply it, if you know what's being acted out. It plays within the limits of being a children's movie, knowing what it can and can't get away with, and ultimately finds amusing and clever solutions for the situations that a more mature detective movie might have.

I was also caught off-guard by how often the focus of Detective Pikachu was not the Pokémon. If you're a parent who isn't into Pokémon but your child loves the franchise, this isn't going to be nearly as alienating as, say, Pokémon: The First Movie. Here, Pokémon serve as a plot device, a narrative framework to explore the bonds between people. They act and behave the way they should based on our in-game knowledge of them, but if you don't know your Ludicolo from your Pangoro, you're not going to be lost. Pokémon and their existence in Detective Pikachu's world serve as a backdrop for a story about trying to find out what happened to a loved one; about exploring emotional struggle formed by childhood trauma; and about learning to trust in someone else. It's about very relatable human themes, with the monster status of Pokémon only a factor when it needs to be. It's great seeing these Pokémon brought to life this way; this isn't a film about trying to catch them all and be the very best trainer – and it's all the better for it.

That isn't to say Detective Pikachu feels disconnected from the larger world of the Pokémon core RPGs either. Frequent throwaway lines confirm that this is still set in a world where trainers catch Pokémon, battle gyms, take down the elite four, and battle against the evil Team Rocket. It's still easy to believe Ash Ketchum is out there, eternally ten years old, trying to win the Kanto, Johto, Sinnoh, and Alolan Pokémon Leagues.

Choosing to set the film in Ryme City, a setting consistent with the world of Pokémon but one that ignores many of the cornerstone elements of the games, allowed for Detective Pikachu's plot to have more freedom. It's not constrained to having to fit plot points that only really work in terms of gameplay but still manages to fit within the narrative of the larger Pokémon universe. It's a big part of how the film stays faithful to, but not hamstrung by, its roots.

There's a couple of scenes where the switching between green screen and real-world footage isn't handled terribly well, but they're few and far between. The vast majority of the movie manages to sell its combination of real world physical sets, human actors, and CGI monsters extremely well, which is quite a feat considering we live in a world where the recent Sonic the Hedgehog trailer managed to massively upset a large portion of those who saw it. The fact that Detective Pikachu manages to include so many Pokémon designs, with none of them crossing into that uncanny valley or feeling unfaithful to their core designs, is a real testament to the film's success.

The movie's soundtrack doesn't make great use of the Pokémon franchise's memorable existing soundtrack library, but I ultimately think it was to the film's benefit. It gave the film much more room to use a score that was designed to set tone, rather than force in call backs to things we remember regardless of their suitability.

I don't want to say much more about Detective Pikachu, because I really think that you should just go see it if you've been intrigued by the trailers. Sure, there are a few imperfections, but ultimately they didn't change the fact this was a fun, moving, and hilarious film that really landed with what it was aiming for. It's a movie about a Pokémon-averse boy and his friend, electric mouse Ryan Reynolds, solving a mystery, talking about their feelings, and becoming closer along the way. It's full of real unexpected laughs, great comedic timing, and a level of emotional complexity I didn't expect from a movie about Pokémon.

In short, Detective Pikachu is great. It's easily a better telling of this story than the actual Detective Pikachu game, and well worth going into as blind as you can. If you've been at all interested in the movie, just take the leap and go see it; it's well worth all the excitement, and probably the best video game movie out there.