Cinematic universes and long, serialized epics are the norm in modern pop culture. In the past month, the blockbuster Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a milestone of 22 serially plotted movies with “Avengers: Endgame” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones” is currently airing its final season after an eight year run. The big screen and small screen alike seem to require more viewer investment and passion than ever before, banking on mega franchises that have become iconic in fandom and even the mainstream.
It only makes sense then that The Pokémon Company and Nintendo would work with Hollywood to release “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” a movie spin-off based on the tremendously successful video game and merchandise-based property. Not wanting to miss this cultural moment, I saw the film the night it released, May 8, as a Pokémon virgin, having played none of the franchise’s games. For me, recognizing characters that aren’t the titular Pikachu or Squirtle and Charizard — essentially the “Super Smash Brothers” roster — represented a rare victory.
It should be noted that this is not a mainline Pokémon film but rather an adaption of the “Detective Pikachu” spinoff game for the Nintendo 3DS. Fans can expect to see little about whatever a shiny Pokémon is supposed to be or the series’ iconic battles, but there are plenty of Pokémon that make brief appearances in the movie nonetheless as set decoration.
The film grounds its story in its human protagonist. Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) expresses hesitance at becoming a Pokémon trainer for family reasons. Raised by his grandmother after his father became heavily involved with his Pokémon hunting career at the expense of time with his son, the young Tim has grown cynically detached from the bright and eccentric world of pocket monsters.
When his father is claimed to be killed, Tim goes to Rhyme City — a bustling metropolis where humans and Pokémon co-exist in the workplace — to say his goodbyes and salvage what he can from his father’s apartment. Along the way, his father’s Pikachu — voided by a just-barely PG Ryan Reynolds — appears. Tim is shocked at being able to understand him, and this applies vice versa for Reynold’s Pikachu, who is used to humans hearing only his “Pika, pika!” catchphrase. It was at this point that I picked up Pokémon are not supposed to talk in the game series’ universe, with stunted versions of their names apparently being the only expression they can make to “trainers” or humans. I always assumed the Pokémon were just being narcissistic.
Tim and Pikachu, after some hesitation, embark on solving the mystery of his father’s death. After settling into a buddy cop film in a vibrant world with visually detailed, well-done CGI Pokémon naturally integrated everywhere — apparently Pokémon are the entirety of wildlife in the series universe. I was starting to enjoy “Pokémon Detective Pikachu.” At its best, the movie seems like a 100 minute, insanely high-budget Saturday morning cartoon, with an equally shallow but competent level of plot logic and character development. Credit has to be given to Nintendo’s iconic Pokémon designs and the realistic yet recognizable way they are put into the movie, because even this newbie was able to pick up on what a “Mr. Mime” or “Ditto” was. That is as much of a testament to the animators and CGI artists as it is to the inescapable pop culture osmosis of the series itself.
Other characters like a young reporter — and innocently adolescent love interest — Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) and corporate tycoon Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) function as mildly entertaining plot devices. Most of the movie however, rests on the shoulders of great visual effects and Ryan Reynolds’ sassy and inexplicably believable Pikachu. Tim and Lucy give the story framing, but the movie intelligently balances its human story with a world full of Pokémon. That is a relief, since many similarly budgeted attempts at translating video games onto the big screen (“Assassin's Creed,” “Need for Speed”) seem to forget what their source material is about and focus on laughably underdeveloped characters invented by screenwriters.
The ending of the movie, a not-quite “Man of Steel” level but still ridiculously drawn out giant battle, wore on me as someone who has never battled Pokémon, but after the three-hour runtime of films like “Avengers: Endgame” this film seemed just long enough being well under the two hour mark. There was surely plenty of fanservice and things I missed out on as a Pokémon newbie — which I look forward to having explained to me in the comments section — but I came away from “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” finding it to be a surprisingly entertaining family comedy.
This is no “Lego Movie” or “Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse” when it comes to surprising brilliance out of a kids movie, but it is no “Super Mario Bros.” level disaster when it comes to video game adaptations either. Kids will love it, adults will like the nostalgia if they are fans of Ryan Reynolds regardless and series novices like me will walk away finally knowing what that flying cat on trading cards is supposed to be — that’s Mewtwo for my fellow newbies.