Pokemon’s first big-screen outing has its share of issues, but it’s also comfortably the best ever movie based on a video game franchise – not bad going for a first attempt.
Adaptation is a tricky business, and it’s something we see botched in video games all the time. When movies are turned into games we very often see cinematic stories stretched to breaking point as gaming tropes are stuffed inside them. When games are turned into film an even uglier problem rears its head; often the property is completely misunderstood as with the Hitman movies, or more often still a game that doesn’t have that much to bring to the table in cinema somehow finds its way to the silver screen anyway, as was the case with Tomb Raider, a cinematic version of a game that existed to retread and retell moments from classic adventure cinema. By coming full-circle, Tomb Raider felt conceptually stale.
How Detective Pikachu adapts the world of Pokemon is where this video game movie has its biggest triumph. There are other things the film absolutely had to get right, obviously – we know from the reaction to the new Sonic the Hedgehog trailer that getting the Pokemon designs right and not uncanny was key – but bringing the world of Pokemon to life in the right way, nailing the tone, was the thing that’d make or break this movie. Detective Pikachu successfully navigates this deftly and in interesting, smartly considered ways.
While the decision to base the film’s plot on the 2016 game of the same name originally had me concerned, in the context of the film it makes perfect sense: you enter the world of Pokemon through a limited perspective, and this makes for a level playing field. Newcomers or lapsed nineties fans now with children of their own are slowly introduced to the status quo of this universe, while hardcore fans will be so busy spotting deep-cut references and puzzling out exactly where and how this film fits in that they will be similarly engaged.
The opening of the film is in many ways a little love letter to fans of the core Pokemon games. It’s two friends hiding in tall grass, observing and trying to catch a Pokemon while reminiscing about when they were small-town kids with dreams of becoming a Pokemon Trainer. Adult life has taken over for protagonist Tim now – he’s an insurance salesman rather than an Ash Ketchum wannabe – but the message sent by the opening is clear: the world of Pokemon that fans love absolutely exists in Detective Pikachu’s world. Somewhere out there, there’s gyms, Team Rocket and Pokemon Centers – but this film immediately steps away from that and carves its own path.
It does that by transplanting the action to Ryme City, a unique place within the Pokemon world. A sort of Poke-utopia built by the movie’s very own Pokemon Professor style character, it’s free of some of the tropes of the world. Pokemon battles are illegal, and only take place on an underground fight circuit. Pokemon aren’t kept inside Pokeballs, but coexist with humans in a more natural way. Kanto, Johto, Alola and the like are all still out there and indeed are referenced in the film – but this is a different place with different rules; it just so happens that those rules also work to make the world of Pokemon immediately less alien to the real world.
This is an incredibly smart adaptation, and why this movie works. It’s not constantly bending over backwards to accommodate things from the games – it runs with what it needs to make its own narrative work. Surprisingly Detective Pikachu also appears to go out of its way to not contradict any existing Pokemon lore, which is plentiful. At one point I thought the film was going to posit an alternative origin story for a major character, but then a few moments later it referenced the original, familiar origin in a throwaway line. This is a perfect example of what this film does well, walking that delicate tightrope between accessibility and the intricacies of a beloved, aging franchise. It arguably does this better even than the Star Wars sequel trilogy.
What a strong vision of Pokemon’s world then allows is for everything else to shine. The creature design and associated CG work is generally brilliant, faithful and yet differentiated in all of the right ways. Justice Smith is a likable, believable lead, and as a mixed-race person I’m always happy to see a major Hollywood production feature a lead of mixed background. Ryan Reynolds’ take on a snarky, caffeine-addicted Pikachu is as brilliant as all of the trailers suggest, and it’s him who injects a much-needed dose of comedy into the film. It’s often laugh-out-loud funny, but not always through slapstick or cute creature shenanigans – often it’s sharp dialogue that gets the biggest laughs.
If the film snags anywhere, it’s around the plot. The basic premise is that Tim’s estranged father has disappeared and is presumed dead – but his father’s Pokemon, a Pikachu, suddenly finds itself able to talk to Tim. The pair embark on an investigation to pick up the thread of an unsolved case, in turn hopefully revealing the truth behind the disappearance and the mysterious talking Pokemon. Along the way events become a little too ensnared in secret labs, overwrought flashbacks and a couple of silly exposition dumps where a holographic gadget is used to replay past events to make absolutely clear what happened. This is a movie for families and kids, of course, but it still feels a little overwrought.
I sometimes worry despite its best efforts that the movie risks being a little too dedicated to the cause; there are several jokes and lines that won’t land for those without prior knowledge. The adaptation is perfectly nailed, but occasionally assumes just a touch too much fandom. I was also a little disappointed in the soundtrack score from Captain America, X-Men and Uncharted 4 composer Henry Jackman – the Pokemon series has a rich musical tapestry to borrow from stylistically, but aside from a few references to the animation theme song Jackman’s score is surprisingly run-of-the-mill.
Compared to the issues we’ve had with video game movies in the past these problems are small potatoes, however. Detective Pikachu gets it right where it counts, and ultimately it’s a fun movie with a whole lot of heart. It’s clearly been created with a great deal of love for every aspect of the Pokemon series that fans love already, be that the tv show, the animated movies, the manga or the video games that started it all. Best of all, it does this while remaining so accessible that little to no prior knowledge is required to enjoy the film. It’s the best video game movie ever made – and while that isn’t necessarily the highest of compliments to pay when the competition is considered, with a sequel greenlit it does make for an exciting future for the marriage of film and games.