Detective Pikachu is the first ever live action Pokémon movie, and the first film to release since Nintendo announced plans to move into more movies – there’s also an animated Mario on the way in a few years.
If Nintendo does plan an all-encompassing cinematic Empire, then at first blush Detective Pikachu feels like an odd starting point. Sure, it’s Pokémon, but it’s based on a niche spin-off game that almost never left Japan, it’s got none of the collecting and battling that sits at the core of the series, and it breaks franchise rules by letting Pikachu talk.
It’s rarely wise to bet against Nintendo though, and in retrospect this is the perfect first film: adult enough to appeal to grown-up fans of the originals, silly enough to draw in the kid crowd, and just about weird enough to stand out from the competition for either. And having Ryan Reynolds in the mix hardly hurts either.
The film is out in both the UK and US from 10 May, and you can grab tickets now: order them from Cineworld, Vue, or Odeon in the UK, or from Fandango or Atom Tickets if you’re in the States. Find out here – spoiler-free – whether or not the film has a post-credit scene to wait for.
So here’s the setup: Justice Smith plays Tim Goodman, a disillusioned young 20-something who doesn’t have a Pokémon of his own and wishes everyone would stop asking why not. He’s content(ish) with his small-town life until he learns about the death of his father, a Ryme City police detective.
It’s while searching through his dad’s old apartment that he runs into Pikachu: an amnesiac caffeine addict whose only clue to his identity is a deerstalker cap with Tim’s dad’s address sown into it. More mysteriously, he can talk to Tim – and vice versa – even though the rest of the world only hears his disarmingly adorable ‘Pika Pika!’ cry.
From here you can probably guess most of the rest: they team up to investigate the death of Tim’s dad, unearth a conspiracy, get into wacky hijinks, and learn to love each other by the end of it all.
In that sense Detective Pikachu can be a bit by-the-numbers, but it never really feels that way while you’re watching it. That’s in large part down to Reynolds’ Pikachu – a softer, fluffier, more family-friendly version of his Deadpool persona that’s no less funny for the compromises. There’s wit here, but no shortage of warmth either – Reynolds’ Pikachu delivers in the sort of tender moments that his R-rated counterpart can’t, and there’s an emotional intelligence to the film that rises above its ‘gotta catch ’em all!’ origins.
Justice Smith does a decent job in the lead role, with his natural warmth shining through, but he does still get slightly outplayed by his fluffier co-star. Kathryn Newton leans in a little too hard as the plucky intern-cum-reporter who gets caught up in the investigation, hamming it up in a film where the likes of Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe, and even Rita Ora turn in unexpectedly restrained performances.
The rest of the Pokémon don’t get short shrift either. Drawing from multiple generations of the cartoon critters (though with an understandable focus on the first 150, seen again in the recent Let’s Go remakes on Switch), Pokémon are built into this world throughout. From Squirtle firefighters to Loudred serving as speakers in an underground Pokémon battling ring, Detective Pikachu does its level best to imagine what a world built around Pokémon would really look like.
The designs drew much controversy when they were first revealed, but in context they work great – even if the sheer amount of effects work leaves the occasional CGI shot looking a little ropey. Special notice has to go to the glorious rendition of Psyduck, an anxiety-stricken nervous wreck who might explode at any moment – quite literally. I want the Psyduck spin-off movie yesterday.
Even the world is fun – especially if you know London. The film mostly shot in the English capital, and the production made almost no effort to hide that fact, with prominent appearances from the Gherkin and Cheesegrater skyscrapers, a couple of double-decker buses, and even the Underground’s roundel logo popping up – albeit repurposed into an oddly shaped public video screen.
Detective Pikachu could have been a disaster, but instead it’s really a bit of a delight. A game cast, robust world-building, and a sharp script combine to produce a film that should appeal equally to new fans and nostalgia-driven millennials.
It’s a low bar to clear, but this is the best videogame movie yet – by some way.
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