I feel sorry for any Pokemon fan who has to review Detective Pikachu.
I say this, despite being a presumed professional who tries to objectively opine on things all the time. Indeed, I have had to differentiate many things I love, from things I would actually designate as good.
Comes with the territory, you know. Sometimes, we as reviewers have to completely remove ourselves from a medium to give an accurate gauge on the content we are tasked with discussing.
That is why I am very happy to say that I do not have to properly judge Detective Pikachu as a film. Is it really a good movie, when you put all of the fan service aside?
I honestly could not tell you. I wish I could.
There is a veil that lies over my eyes, and it is borne of two decades of admiration for a franchise that has finally been realized on the big screen as a major motion picture. Not a niche movie, as its predecessors had been. Instead, a fully fledged universe that needs no context, besides what is explicitly explained onscreen.
Exposition is offered in Detective Pikachu as part of the plot, and not in spite of it. And that is why I believe it is the best video game movie of all time.
If you haven’t seen the film yet, I assure you that this synopsis will be devoid of major spoilers. There may be minor allusions made towards particular Pokemon, but by and large, it shouldn’t influence anyone’s viewing experience.
So to frame the situation: I am a Pokemon fan from the late 90s: hooked on the series for almost as long as it has been entrenched in western society. I have seen the highs, the lows, and even delved into the divisive world of competitive battling.
I’ve hatched enough eggs in pursuit of perfect IVs to consider myself ‘familiar’ with the franchise.
When the first Pokemon movie came out during the height of its popularity, it was both a thrilling and tense experience. Thrilling, because the pocket monsters could surely do no wrong at the time — particularly for me, as an eleven-year-old PokeManiac.
Tense, because I had to expose myself. …Metaphorically, of course.
The anime, with its many flaws, was something that I could experience on the television by myself. Whenever something cool happened, that was for me, to later be discussed in the schoolyard, perhaps.
Whenever something lame happened, you simply didn’t bring it up with anyone. It was like it never happened. Just stupid trivialities that were your own guilty pleasure.
When I went to the cinemas to see the original film, it was with my dad, who was — needless to say — not a Pokemon fan. Just a man who wanted to do something nice for his son.
And even though I wasn’t even a teenager yet, the experience was cringeworthy. The cutesy mini-film of Pikachu’s Vacation. The morality-driven plot of the film itself, which was more akin to a long, preachy episode of the anime, than it was its own experience.
Despite the fact that it wasn’t even entirely satisfying to Pokemon fans (Pidgeot being dubbed as Pidgeotto still irks me to this day), it offered nothing to the novice. No context, no explanation, just things happening that you were expected to understand.
The noisy, fighty things were doing noisy fighting. Figure it out, noob.
And then, everyone started crying.
The scene in which Ash is caught in the battle between good and evil, and turned into stone, is one of the most painful memories I have suffered through as a Pokemon fan.
Not because it resonated with me emotionally, as was intended, but because I was embarrassed beyond belief. Mewtwo’s clones, who we had been led to believe were motivated only by their desire for self-preservation, were suddenly driven to tears by the apparent death of this child they didn’t know?
Good lord, I just wanted it to be over.
Its message was completely lost under the awkward nosedive its plot had taken, as if it had suddenly transformed into an offshoot Care Bears flick.
Fast forward two decades, and I felt similar trepidation walking into the cinema to see Detective Pikachu with my wife, another non-fan. She was the modern representation of my father; someone who would grit their teeth and suffer through a silly movie simply for my enjoyment.
But Detective Pikachu carries a self-awareness that all of the previous films lacked, and therein lies its strength. The greatest compliment that I could pay it is that it is not a Pokemon movie, but a movie that has Pokemon in it.
Gaming films typically lean in one direction or the other, between fan service and accessibility. Examples of the former include the aforementioned Pokemon flick or something like Final Fantasy: Advent Children.
The latter, like the rightly maligned Super Mario Bros. film of the mid-90s, deviates so radically from the source material, that any attempt at familiarity feels shoehorned and obtuse.
We wanted the Mushroom Kingdom, and we instead got fried anole sandwiches.
Detective Pikachu takes on a different tact, wherein it follows a story that does not demand the Pokemon, but instead works them into its narrative fluidly.
In theory, its plot could work in an entirely new universe: fictional monsters living in peace among their human counterparts. Though their unique on-screen characteristics play into their abilities, the movie still cues you into what’s going on, as if it assumes you know nothing.
Despite this, in the first half, it peppers cameos throughout its scenes heavily. A group of Joltik scuttling across a cable or a Rufflet nesting in a barn may be nothing more than scene-setting aesthetics to most, but for Pokemon fans, it’s a minor thrill.
Internally, I reacted to each quick appearance like a child might emote verbally to the same phenomenon. It was eerily reminiscent of the early stages of Wreck-It Ralph, which leaned hard into its source material as a framework, before pulling back to let its actual narrative breathe.
To this note, the Pokemon overload slows after the first hour or so, and in this way it not only allows you to focus on the story, but it makes each subsequent introduction feel more significant.
If you’ve seen the trailers, you know that Charizard makes an appearance. A Pokemon of such significance shouldn’t feel like a throwaway cameo, and it is addressed with the appropriate gravitas that ought to be afforded of a franchise stalwart.
Later on, we give way to subtle, charming appearances by other Pokemon such as Bulbasaur, who play a brief but noteworthy role in the proceedings.
At this point, my wife leant over to inquire why I had such affinity towards Bulbasaur, and I regaled her about how it was my first Pokemon, and I, therefore, treated it and its evolutionary chain with such reverence.
Bulbasaur wasn’t thrown in our face with bold expectations, as it was in its anime film adaptations: it was merely something we recognized and would, therefore, like to discuss, alongside a bevy of tiny Morelull.
Just doing their thing, living in an ecosystem that makes sense for them.
Prior to viewing, I read a piece by Brian Ashcraft on Kotaku, who rightly observed that anime staples such as Ash, Misty, and Brock weren’t featured because they would carry their own set of expectations that might influence the movie’s tone.
In turn, I offer that the human protagonists of Tim and Lucy hold strong parallels, without outright proclaiming themselves as such.
In the original Detective Pikachu game, Tim was a one-dimensional character who was completely overshadowed by the titular Pokemon, while Lucy Stevens didn’t exist at all.
Here, we have a pair of heroes accompanied by a Pikachu and Psyduck. Sound familiar? It should.
To reaffirm, this is not Ash and Misty; but instead, much more fleshed out and relatable facsimiles who operate with their own motivations.
They’re better in almost every way, brought wonderfully to life by Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton, without being handcuffed to our own preconceptions.
So far, I haven’t even mentioned Ryan Reynolds’ performance in the eponymous role, and when you consider his prominence, that should be a good sign.
Though I will always carry a fondness for Kaiji Tang’s Detective Pikachu, Reynolds’ unique take on the character — loaded with wit and one-liners — slots perfectly into the narrative. He’s the featured character, but it’s not at the detriment of everyone else around him.
In many ways, Detective Pikachu is the Pokemon equivalent to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World — a film that has its basis in the world of video games and pop culture but carries itself comfortably, without needing prior context.
Are such movies strengthened by such context? Undoubtedly, because it adds an extra layer of insight. But those who lack this knowledge aren’t left out in the cold: they’re given their own experience that holds up on its own, instead of scratching their heads in bewilderment.
My wife’s verdict: she loved the movie. And so did I.
Though I obviously garnered more cheap thrills than she did, we both came away with a fondness for the story that was told, and that is a true accomplishment. It was like the franchise I loved had finally grown up with me.
The same kick I had gotten out of playing Pokemon Stadium for the first time, except much more gratifying because this came to me as a bitter, jaded adult.
Is Detective Pikachu a movie made for Pokemon fans? Yes, of course it is.
But the fact that it doesn’t come at the cost of the uninformed moviegoer is perhaps its greatest strength and the reason it can be enjoyed by fan and non-fan equally.
At least, that’s from my estimation. Again, I don’t have to review this film from a critic’s lens, obscured by cinematography or other such mandates.
I just love it, and if you’re a gaming fan, I really think you might, too.