Film Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu (USA/Japan, 2019) is an excellent buddy comedy based off a quirky video game

Video games have generally had a fairly bad run when it comes to movie adaptations. Either they veer too far away from their source material and lose their gamer fans, or they lean too far into it and go over the heads of mainstream audiences. So when it was announced that they were making a live action adaptation of Nintendo’s video game Detective Pikachu, there was definitely an air of skepticism. But thanks to some excellently convincing visual effects and inspired voice casting it looks like this might just be one of the better ones.

So in the realm of real world pop culture there’s a thing called Pokémon, it’s a video game and also a tv series, and also about 20 different animated movies. If you’ve not heard of it before you can probably still get by seeing Pokémon Detective Pikachu, as there’s enough exposition to get you through it. If you’re a fan of any and all Pokémon then you’re probably going to love this.

We meet Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), he’s a bit of a loner and unlike the rest of the world he doesn’t much like Pokémon. Pokémon are creatures, they live in the wild but they can also be caught, trained and turned into pet-like sidekicks, and pretty much everybody has one. When Tim is informed that his detective father has died he heads to Ryme City to go sort things out. Only to find that his father’s Pokémon Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) somehow survived and that the circumstances surrounding Harry Goodman’s death are quite mysterious. To make things even weirder, Tim can talk to Pikachu, something that is unheard of. This probably wouldn’t be so bad for Tim, except that Pikachu is a motor-mouthed, deer-stalker hat wearing, caffeine addict suffering amnesia and determined to figure out what happened to his partner Harry.   

The film’s first act does take a little while to get moving. It has to throw a bit of exposition in, as well as some fast world-building, but once it does you’re immersed in this alternate reality. Ryme City looks like London but with Japanese neon signage, and Harry Potter style magical creatures everywhere you look. Here the people and critters live side by side peacefully. For fans of the video game, it’s jam-packed with characters that you’ll want to pick out in every scene. For the rest of us, you just get to admire how cute they look, and hoo boy most of them are pretty gosh darn cute. 

The visual effects here on both the Pokémon and the world itself is pretty spectacular and adds to the realism. What’s more is the visual effects and CGI done on the Pokémon, and particularly Pikachu, to make them look so realistic, despite being complete works of fiction and fantasy. There’s one scene where a pack of Bulbasaur are trotting through a forest whilst bioluminescent Morelull float around and it’s truly a thing of beauty.

Once the film kicks into its detective-noir mode it gets a little more interesting as our intrepid, albeit forced pair, have to work together to figure out what happened. They’re aided by an intern reporter and journalist Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and her Psyduck, and she cottons on that Harry was investigating something involving Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) and his son Roger Clifford’s (Chris Geere) scientific facility. And whilst it initially is fun for us to tag along with this foursome as they try to piece the puzzle together, the story does get a little convoluted as it moves into its final act.

Reynolds and Smith are an excellent buddy comedy pair, Smith’s Goodman is initially prickly towards the furry electric mouse now in his charge. But it’s their bonding that grounds these two characters, making their partnership both endearing and believable when it counts. Honestly though, this film wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for Reynolds’ voice acting. Here he channels his sharp wit and occasional snark into this adorably fluffy creature who is lovable but grating. It helps to have director Rob Letterman (Goosebumps, Monsters Vs Aliens) keep the overall direction and vibe fairly family friendly and on our two main stars and their chemistry.

Where the film does flounder is that the plot gets a little over-complicated in its final act, and once the grand evil scheme is revealed it is a bit on the ridiculous side. Also some of the supporting cast are left with not much to do but provide some exposition or assist our main duo. Newton’s journalist for one, and Ken Watanabe’s Lieutenant Hide Yoshida who works on the police force with Harry Goodman both have little to do. Also I’m not familiar with the game that this film is adapted from, so I’m not sure how accurately it follows the game’s story but it’s enough for us mainstream audiences to get the gist. Also there aren’t as many Pokémon battles as I expected but that’s more likely because they focus on the detective story aspect. This might be disappointing for the more avid Pokémon fans who may have wanted to see a Vulpix fight it out against a Growlithe.

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is by no means a wholistic or all encompassing look into the world of Pokémon. But more specifcally one individual self contained story that just so happens to feature the creatures of this unique and lasting video game legacy. The fact that it keeps its focus on the main characters, and their buddy duo detective adventure makes this an entertaining watch. It also makes this one of the better video game to movie adaptation films we’ve seen in a while. 

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is out in Australian cinemas from 9 May 2019 through Roadshow Films

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