To give you an idea of how I come to Pokémon Detective Pikachu, you have to understand a bit about my history with Pokémon. I was eight years old when the original games came out in the US, and through the first two generations of games, I was a diehard fan. I watched the anime, collected the cards, bought a Nintendo 64 just so I could play Pokémon Stadium, you name it. And as life went on, I became less obsessive with the franchise as other fandoms and adult responsibilities took its place, but occasionally I’ve picked up some of the later installments of the game series and still find myself enjoying them for their unique spin on the RPG formula. All this is to say that I am a Poké-fan, though not necessarily one who can name every single monster or has much more appreciation for the franchise beyond game mechanics and nostalgia.
Pokémon Detective Pikachu feels like it was made with exactly my experiences in mind.
A lot of that comes down to the underlying premise that drives Detective Pikachu, which straddles a line between millennial absurdism and conventional neo-noir plotting. Set vaguely within the world and timeline of either the games or the anime – it’s unclear which – the film follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) as he travels to Ryme City upon learning of his detective father’s apparent demise via car collision, some details of which are probably overly explained in the opening seconds but I’ll opt to leave undisclosed here. Ryme City touts itself as a refuge for Pokémon and humans to live together in peace without trainers or battles, so pretty much everyone has a partner creature to follow them around as a constant companion. Tim has no such companion, having abandoned aspirations of Pokémon training in his youth, until he runs into a mysterious talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) while sorting out his dad’s affairs. The Pikachu has lost his memory but bears the name of Tim’s father on the inside of his jaunty little detective’s cap, so the pair resolve to solve the mystery of what caused the car crash by following in dad’s investigative footsteps.
Now, depending on your point of view, this is either a heartwarming story of Tim learning to reconnect with his youthful passion for Pokémon, or it’s a toxic exercise in nostalgia-baiting with the purpose of reselling our childhoods back to us in perpetuity while roping in the next generation. You can see this in how the film very carefully tows a line by giving Reynolds material that comes across as surprisingly dark and vulgar like a toned-down Deadpool, yet it stays just far enough this side of ambiguous to keep the film to a kid-friendly PG rating. But I’ll be damned if the whole thing doesn’t come across charming as hell as a result. Detective Pikachu is consistently funny and keeps up the action amidst its neon-soaked aesthetic, which evokes a sort of alternate universe noir tone that is gorgeous to look at and seamlessly integrates the digitally rendered monsters into its infrastructure. You already know whether you’re on board with the pseudo-realistic Pokémon designs by now based on the film’s marketing, but I personally think every design looks pretty great, although if you aren’t too familiar with what Pokémon are already, there’s a good chance that some base concepts such as evolution and move-type advantages are going to be too quickly brushed over for the layman to do much more than sit back and enjoy the flashy spectacle.
That doesn’t detract from the central story, though even for a family film it leans a bit on the overly simplistic and predictable side for a supposed mystery, but the emotional beats within that story land well and make for a solid skeleton over which to build the fun bits around. Kathryn Newton gets a fun role as a journalist intern trying to make a name for herself by following Tim’s dad’s trail, Ken Watanabe gets an unfortunately truncated turn as a skeptical police lieutenant, and Bill Nighy of all people shows up as the benevolent media mogul who hired Tim’s dad in the first place. There’s actually strong dystopian undercurrents to the social structure of Ryme City’s apparent utopia that lend to the film’s surprising faithfulness to noir convention, and while those themes never really bubble to the surface there does seem to be a seedy darkness that should appeal to the disillusioned former youth that were Pokémon’s original audience.
If there’s one thing that gives me pause about Pokémon Detective Pikachu, it’s that it probably leans a little too heavily toward fan service in the moments when it most fully indulges itself, which is something I noticed as monsters from later generations that I’m personally less familiar with were introduced as key plot elements. This by no means breaks the film, as at its core Detective Pikachu is fully committed to being a buddy comedy mystery that only happens to exist in a high-concept monster world, but the film probably has enough room where it could have slowed down enough for exposition’s sake and not solely served folks like me. If you don’t know a thing about Pokémon, you’re probably still going to have a good time, even if you feel a bit in the dark on some finer details. But if you’re a fan of a certain age, or even one a bit younger and a bit more Poké-savvy than I am, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is an electric jolt to the nostalgic centers of the brain, and this feels like one instance where making an adaptation “for the fans” didn’t necessarily turn out to be a bad thing.