“Detective Pikachu” Review: The First Great Video Game Adaptation

By Ashley Zhou

When “Detective Pikachu” was first announced, many Pokemon and video game fanatics rolled their eyes. Video game adaptations have a notorious history of being terrible, due to either the movie executives obviously using the video games’ names to solicit money out of fans – (ironically having poor results in the box office) or directors and writers not understanding the source material well enough to know what made audiences love them in the first place. Until the first trailer’s release, “Detective Pikachu” was thought to be just another forgettable video game movie.

Fortunately, Pokemon fans can rest easy, as this movie is not only the first great video game adaptation but also opens the door for more great video game adaptations in the future.

Directed by Rob Letterman and starring Ryan Reynolds and Justice Smith, the movie follows insurance salesman Tim Goodman (Smith) and wise-cracking Detective Pikachu (Reynolds) as they try to solve what happened to Tim’s father. Along the way, they interact with the whimsical Pokemon and their unique powers and observe how they live alongside humans.

Right away, it’s obvious how much love and research has been poured into the movie. The artists and visual effects designers have made sure that the Pokemon feel real while still remaining faithful to their video game origins. Detective Pikachu’s fur and facial expressions make him incredibly huggable and fuzzy, while Charizard’s more lizard-like design conveys his terrifying dragon-ness. The movie assumes that all of its audiences are Pokemon fans, so rather than explaining every single Pokemon and their abilities, the movie shows how a Pokemon’s abilities fit in with the human world. Growlithe act as police dogs, Squirtle are putting out fires alongside firefighters, and Machamp direct traffic and lift heavy objects.

The set design of the movie is incredibly well-crafted and designed to be suitable for both humans and Pokemon to co-exist. The city of Ryme draws obvious parallels to the city of Tokyo with its bright neon lights and signs but also incorporates Pokemon likenesses into the symbols of the buildings, such as using a Noctowl logo for a late night bar. There are no instances of product placement in any of the sets, immersing audiences fully into the world. The movie also takes great care inserting little details and easter eggs from the franchise, like putting Pokemon Battle Championships posters around Tim’s bedroom and referencing the Pokemon TV show theme song.

The main performances were the standouts of the film. Ryan Reynolds perfectly balances Detective Pikachu’s chipper attitude and slightly inappropriate humor with his cuteness and penchant for curiosities. Justice Smith does an excellent job portraying a grounded, tired adult who hides inner sorrow and conflict. The audience really feels his pain when he opens up and roots for him as he learns how to have fun with Pokemon again. Both actors have excellent chemistry together and balance each others’ opposite personalities perfectly, so the audience feels like they belong together as a team. The rest of the characters are one-dimensional tropes that have been seen in countless other movies, but they didn’t need to be more complex, as the movie is focused more on Detective Pikachu and Tim’s relationship.

To remind audiences of early Pokemon games, composer Henry Jackman blends both traditional orchestra and 8-bit sounds to create exciting battle music and wondrous city vibes. The remix of the Pokemon main theme during the ending credits is bombastic and incredibly catchy.

Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros

The story is simple and easy to follow. The start of the film is a little rough and the characters’ dialogue feels a bit contrived at times. The romance subplot is forced, as the two characters involved don’t have any chemistry together outside of a few forced tropes that audiences have already seen thousands of times. The plot twist at the end of the movie is also predictable. However, the story didn’t need to be groundbreaking, as the relationship between Tim and Detective Pikachu and the wondrous world of Pokemon are the selling points of the movie. The pacing remains constant throughout the movie and makes sure that the audience really feels the tense and sad moments.

Any Pokemon and video game fan should see this movie, as it stands out amongst the animated Pokemon movies. There is no need to play the video game the movie is based on or even be familiar with the Pokemon universe, as the movie has humor and heart that all audiences can enjoy and excellent world-building to boot. This movie is not only a great video game movie but also a great movie by itself, a feat that has never been achieved by any video game adaptation. Even audiences who have no interest in Pokemon or video games have to respect the movie for managing to prove that video game adaptations can be great and encouraging more filmmakers to craft adaptations with love and care rather than with making money first.