There's been a long and uneasy relationship between video games and movies. Whether it's a major film getting a video game spin-off, or a theatrical adaptation of a famous game franchise, the overall outcome has always been... underwhelming. And with tensions high from the live action Sonic trailer, the idea of a live action Pokémon movie sounds unnerving in concept.
So when I walked into the dimly lit theater to catch the 3:20 showing of Pokémon Detective Pikachu, I was nervous. I've been a fan of Pokémon since the release of Pokémon Red and Blue on the original Game Boy. I was steeling myself for a childish and awkward movie with ugly creatures flailing about on screen.
It was a huge sigh of relief to leave the theater hoping they'd make another one.
A mild disclaimer: I'm a games journalist. I spend my days playing and writing about video games. While I have a pretty heavy knowledge of Pokémon, I don't usually analyze movies. The thoughts and ideas expressed here will be from this game-centric perspective, and not from that a movie critic's.
What is Pokémon Detective Pikachu?
For the sake of movie enjoyment, I won't reveal the plot spoilers. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is an American film adaption of a Japanese video game of the same name and general plot.
The movie begins with a scene of a scientific laboratory. We see people in lab suits performing tests while the legendary Pokémon Mewtwo sits in a container. After a moment, Mewtwo awakens, bursting out of containment and chases after an escaping car.
After that, the story follows Tim, a young adult who learns that his father died in a car accident. Tim then has to travel to Ryme City, a metropolis where Pokémon and people like in free harmony, meaning that no one keeps their Pokémon stored away in pokeballs. While struggling to cope with some abandonment-based father issues, Tim discovers that his father, a skilled investigator, might not actually be dead and that there is something far more sinister taking place under the surface.
Eventually, Tim meets a strange talking Pikachu with a caffeine addiction and a case of amnesia (cliche, I know). The two work together to find out what his father was investigating, in hopes of finding out what actually happened to him and why Pikachu lost his memory. There's also an ambitious reporter that helps the party throughout the film.
Let's address the Snorlax in the room first, shall we? It's a live action movie with CGI Pokémon. Until now, the franchise has focused on a cuter, anime-like style for all of their representation. This is the first time an official Pokémon product has been dark, gritty, and realistic looking. While it was off putting at first seeing a Jigglypuff with real hair, this artistic direction turned out far better than I expected.
Every Pokémon seen in the movie is given a great deal of consideration with their realistic look. The leafy "hat" of Ludicolo looks like actual leaves, the leathery hide of Squirtles have that slick look you'd expect from a water-dwelling creature, and the menacing, dragon-like design of Charizard is even more intimidating when you can see his reptilian skin.
While some might not enjoy the realistic approach, I found that it blended the fantasy of Pokémon with the real world rather well.
More than visually, The movie puts a great deal of effort into keeping true to Pokémon concepts established in the previous games and shows. Psyduck still has the tendency to get explosive headaches, The origin of Cubone's skull helmet is made apparent, Jigglypuff sings people to sleep, the list goes on.
They even retain some of the core concepts of Pokémon battling. There are set moves that each Pokémon can learn and use. Pikachu expressed disinterest in using the Volt Tackle attack due to it's self-harming effect. In the games, Volt Tackle is a move exclusive to the Pikachu evolutionary line, one that deals recoil damage equal to ⅓ of the damage done to the target.
This one might just be me imagining it, but I found it worth mentioning. There is a moment where a chunk of earth falls, knocking the titular Pikachu unconscious. A friend has expressed surprise in something so minor hurting Pikachu that much until I had told them that Electric-Type Pokémon are weak against Ground-Type attacks.
In the cinematic universe, Loudred the sound Pokémon is commonly used to loudly play music. They do this by beatboxing. But due to the super-powered nature of Pokémon, we heard sick dirty dubstep beat. I didn't know how badly I needed a bunch of Loudred beatboxing Skrillex until I saw it in this film. And now that I have it, I crave more.
The story was better than expected. While, granted, I came into this expecting some cliche concept of friendship and learning to love Pokémon, so my expectations were already pretty low. The plot was interesting and kept things mysterious enough to be engaging, while the intermediary scenes, like in the fighting ring and with Mr. Mime, were well produced. While not the most incredible narrative I've experienced, I didn't have much to complain about.
The movie has a few problems. While these issues were largely separate from what made the movie as good as it was, they were by no means unnoticeable. It's worth reminding that I am not a movie critic, but a game critic, so these complaints come from me as a consumer.
While the world was filled to the brim with different Pokémon, I noticed that many of the same ones were repeated throughout the film. For every Emolga I saw, there were five or six different Greninjas. I can give a pass to themed Pokémon, like the Growlithe groups working for the police, but it seemed strange that some Pokémon you'd only see once in the background, while others you'd see several times in various locations.
My greatest issue lied with Lucy Stevens, the diamond in the rough reporter that helps Tim, providing information, assistance, and a mild love interest. Her character jumped between being a clumsy and disorganized ditz, working as a blogger for a major news outlet, to being a skilled investigative journalist capable of breaking a story that no one else can.
This sat weirdly with me. Is she competent or not? I spent half of the movie trying to figure out if her confidence in secret-finding was genuine or just her being more full of herself than she realized. It wasn't until she actually dug up information on the lab facility did I realize she's actually good at what she does.
Maybe it's because the idea of "I can break a story but I'm not important so no one listens" is a media trope that doesn't hold true in the real world. News outlets are always looking for scoops, they're not going to disregard one of their own employees because she's low level.
Maybe I'm wrong in that regard, but her character was confusing more than not.
None of these issues quite compare to the end credit music. At the end of the film, as the credits roll, we hear a few Pokémon based songs. This includes a new track by Korean boy band Honest Boyz called Electricity, featuring Lil Uzi Vert. And to be frank, it's kind of garbage. It sounds like the vocalizations of a high schooler's hardstep rave track laid over a kid's cartoon theme song. The rest of the soundtrack was really well chosen and integrated, why end the entire thing in this?
Pokémon Detective Pikachu does a great job of staying true to the source material. It manages to represent the franchise in a realistic style without looking bad while weaving an alright story into it. I wouldn't say I was wowed by the film, nor that it was bad in any sense. All in all, it was "not bad." I enjoyed my time, don't regret seeing it, and I might even pick it up on Blu-Ray when that comes out.
Interestingly, despite the overall averageness, I'd love to see more in this world. The world and its presentation was definitely the film's strongest suit, after all. Maybe a second film about someone going up against the Elite Four or something.
If you like Pokémon and aren't too fussy about how good a movie is, then I recommend seeing Detective Pikachu. If you care more about unique cinematic experiences than the franchise it's coming from, then maybe give this one a pass.