It’s no secret that video game adaptations have quite a bad track record. There are many reasons for this, from the fact that many of the most iconic game franchises aren’t very narrative focused, to the expensive nature of these adaptations engendering these stories being written by committee. But perhaps most importantly, it seems as though the stigma attached to these adaptations scares away many talented creatives. While Detective Pikachu isn’t going to single-handedly alter people’s perception of movies based on games, it is certainly a decent step in the right direction.
The story begins with Tim Goodman, a 21-year-old insurance salesman, receiving some dismal news. His father has just died in a car crash. He was a detective working in Ryme City, a metropolis that encourages cooperation between humans and Pokémon. Having been estranged from his dad for some time, Tim is unsure of his emotions at first. But after processing his loss, things get all the more confusing. He meets his father’s Pikachu, which had reportedly died in the crash. And even stranger still, Tim can actually understand what this Pikachu is saying, a completely unique situation. After they get over the shock of being able to understand one another they set out to unravel the mystery of what happened to Tim’s father.
It‘s certainly a boon that the film focuses on the relationship between Tim and Pikachu, because Ryan Reynolds’s performance as the titular electric rodent largely makes up for some of the more lackluster performances. The first ten minutes or so before his introduction are full of awkward and unconvincing dialogue, with Justice Williams struggling to helm things upfront. But Reynolds imbues the Pokémon mascot with a caffeine addicted zeal and sardonic wit, delivering some much-needed humor and charm. While initially founded on antagonism and dishonesty, the bond between Tim and Pikachu feels like it organically evolves into something we can believe in.
In terms of tone, the proceedings feel like a vague homage to film noir, with dramatic femme fatale introductions, shuttered blinds, and a slowly unraveling mystery at its core. Admittedly most of this is just an aesthetic allusion, with the story avoiding the genre’s penchant for exploring the darkness of the human soul or urban decay and the like. But, it’s not often you see a modern children’s movie shot on 35mm, an excellent decision here that helps blend the texture of detective films with all of the 3D animation. Ryme City is an interesting mixture of Utopian and cyberpunk influences, with idyllic sectors as well as seedy neon-lit back alleys. And the city’s gimmick of being a bastion for human-Pokémon unity gives an excuse for showcasing dozens of pocket monsters.
Perhaps most importantly for Pokémon fans, the renditions of these collectible creatures strike a fine balance between remaining true to the original designs while also making them seem plausible in the real world. Pikachu has fluffy tufts of fur, while still adhering to the general look of the series mascot. The seed on Bulbasaur’s back has the texture of an actual plant, and it possesses the eyes of a lizard but is still adorable regardless. And Mr. Mime looks like a nightmarish little creepy dude, as he should. This approach retains the visual sensibilities of the games while also successfully melding CGI and live action. And for those who aren’t preexisting fans of the series, the creatures are imaginative enough that they should be appealing regardless.
While the art design and animation make great strides to sell this world, the happenings of the plot often feel far more perfunctory. There’s some shoehorned romance and shadowy corporations that are unambiguously morally corrupt. The mystery at the center of this story doesn’t elicit all that much suspense, and when the motivations of those pulling the strings are revealed, their justifications are underwhelming. Those hoping for a live action children’s movie with a CGI mascot that has the thematic resonance of something like Paddington will be disappointed.
Luckily, the relationship between Tim and Pikachu ensures that the film’s merits don’t entirely rest on its visuals. The buildup from their reluctant partnership to genuine friendship feels earned through the various trials and tribulations they face along the way. Tim addresses his failed dreams while coming to terms with the relationship he had with his father in a way that naturally extends from the story’s central mystery. Where the two end up doesn’t feel like a shoehorned contrivance for the sake of a neat ending, but a conclusion that naturally follows what came before.
Detective Pikachu may not single-handedly deliver us from the apocalyptic landscape of bad video game adaptations, but it handles its source material well enough to justify further installments in this cinematic universe. These renditions of many fan-favorite Pokémon are an excellent combination of realistic and the fantastic, these creatures fitting nicely into the futuristic boroughs of Ryme City. Reynolds’s performance sells the comedy, while also making the relationship between a CGI mouse creature and a real-life human feel genuine. The script may play things far too safe, but this isn’t so damning as to make the proceedings unwatchable. And for gaming fans who want to see our favorite worlds on the big screen, we will take what we can get.