Based on the Nintendo 3DS game by the same name, Pokémon Detective Pikachu is the first live-action Pocket Monster adaptation. Hollywood has an abysmal track record with video game movies, but this time, it seems to have pulled off the impossible: Making an enjoyable live-action Pokémon movie that will delight fans and non-fans alike.
This piece was first published on May 3, 2019. We’re bumping it today for the movie’s release.
Set mostly in Ryme City, where Pocket Monsters live alongside humans, the movie follows the game’s basic plot. While trying to find his missing father, a young man named Tim Goodman discovers he can talk to a crime-solving Pikachu. The central mystery isn’t only what happened to Tim’s father, but also, who is making the drug called “R” that makes Pokémon go berserk. Detective Pikachu follows a rather formulaic detective film plot but so does the original game.
But Detective Pikachu doesn’t share the same burden that weighs down so many adaptations, whether that’s video game or anime. For example, one thing that continually plagues made-in-Japan anime and manga adaptations is how many fans want the live-action version to simply be that: the anime and manga brought to life, as is, with humans. This means that character costumes and attributes, which might look cool when drawn, get directly translated to live-action, often with awkward or off-putting results that do not look realistic but instead appear downright goofy. The other extreme is something like the Attack on Titan cinematic movies which completely disregard the character’s original designs for a localized version. Detective Pikachu takes a different approach.
The smartest thing Legendary Pictures did with Detective Pikachu was to not adapt Red & Blue — or any mainline Pokémon game or the long-running anime. The expectations would be too high and inevitably end in tears. Instead, by starting with a spin-off, the filmmakers were able to adeptly sidestep those expectations for how characters should talk, look and dress, giving room for the actors to bring them to life. (The Resident Evil movies, the most successful video game cinematic franchise, previously took a similar approach: Don’t redo the games, but instead, create a cinematic universe based on the in-game one. Detective Pikachu, however, has a far better understanding of its source material.)
The character of Tim Goodman from the game isn’t beloved like Ash from the anime. In both the game and the movie, he’s a former wanna-be trainer turned insurance salesman with a rotten relationship with his father; in the movie, Tim is actually far more interesting and well-drawn than the in-game original. Since the other lead character Lucy Stevens doesn’t appear in the game, there aren’t the same expectations placed on a, say, a live-action version of Misty. Lucy is an intern at a news network, sick of writing listicles and hungry to break a big story.
The makers of Detective Pikachu certainly appear eager to please, but it’s not through cheap visceral thrills. Instead, so much of the movie appears to be set on getting the world of Pokémon as right as a big-budget movie can.
In what must be a cinematic first, the movie adaptation is more fully realized than the game in scope and breadth. The 3DS vision of Ryme City is rather bland, especially compared to the movie’s incarnation, which looks like Neo-Tokyo meets Pokémon. The urban cityscape is filled with layered with Pokémon cameos and layered with Easter Eggs, advertising shops like Charizard’s BBQ and the quite-clever Snap Camera Shop. In comparison, the game’s Ryme City is bland, and interestingly, smacks of the movie’s first ho-hum location, the town of Leaventown.
Early in the picture, when Justice Smith as Tim Goodman is riding the train from Leaventown to Ryme City, a Lickitung sticks out its tongue and then proceeds to lick the side of his face, covering it in globs of salvia. It’s gross but played for laughs, which perfectly sums up what meeting Lickitung would actually be like. This also helps establish that these Pocket Monsters are living, breathing creatures. Some are creepy, others are cuddly, and a couple of them are truly menacing, but they’re all real.
Pokémon are well conceived and fascinating creatures, so the fact that the filmmakers have recognized that and are not content to simply rely on appearances, but have a deeper understanding of what the Pokémon can do, is why this adaptation works so well compared to Hollywood’s other superficial attempts. Detective Pikachu understands Pokémon. It’s why the film works.
Often with movie adaptations, only the barest superficial elements from the source material are referenced on-screen. Characters kind of look how they do in the games or share the same barebones modus operandi, and that’s it. In Detective Pikachu, joke after joke centers around Pokémon, and major plot points hinge on the abilities of certain Pokémon, instead of only a series of hollow spot-them-if-you-can cameos, showing how much thought has gone into the production. The movie is acutely aware that it has two audiences: Pokémon fans and non-fans. Early on, there’s a quick and painless explanation of how catching Pokémon works. Even this is laced with smart quips that fans can appreciate. It’s clearly evident the filmmakers did their homework and are enjoying themselves. The world of Pokémon is fertile, and instead of simply scratching its surface, Detective Pikachu delights in going deeper.
Once Ryan Reynolds does make his entrance as the titular detective, the joke ratio does spike suddenly, with nearly every other line a zinger. Reynolds has proven himself one of the most enjoyable and likable actors of his generation, thanks to his ability to not only craft excellent jokes but to deliver them. This is a kid’s movie, so he’s not working blue like in Deadpool, fart and pee-pee jokes aside. The Ted for kids comparison is apt.
Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures brought in some of the best visual effects artists in the business. Director Rob Letterman cut his teeth on CG animation with films like Shark Tale and Monsters vs. Aliens. The filmmakers had the added plus of The Pokémon Company’s involvement, providing notes on the CG character designs. All of these parts came together in the final film and resulted in Pocket Monsters that didn’t feel like live-action translations, but instead, live-action versions.
The movie does take liberties with the game, introducing several huge set pieces, totally different motivations for the antagonist, a new ability for a truly powerful Pokémon, and a completely different ending. The original game has an unsatisfying, unresolved conclusion, whereas the movie adaptation attempts to wrap everything up. I found it awkward and unbelievable, but the rest of the movie was so much fun that this wasn’t a dealbreaker. The big reveal at the end did make me wonder how they’ll pull off the inevitable sequel. However they do, here’s hoping it packs the same fun.