Detective Pikachu film review: This is how you adapt a video game for theaters

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Psy Psy Psy Psy Psy —

A game adaptation so good, I almost forgot to compliment Ryan Reynolds’ hilarious work.

Sam Machkovech

How do you know it's<em>Detective</em>Pikachu, not just standard Pikachu? Clues: the hat, the magnifying glass, the lush fur.

Enlarge/How do you know it’sDetectivePikachu, not just standard Pikachu? Clues: the hat, the magnifying glass, the lush fur.

Warner Bros. / The Pokemon Company

Pokémon: Detective Pikachuis the best video game adaptation I’ve ever seen in a theater. And it’s even better than that weak praise might imply.

We could spend this entire article regretting the existence of Uwe Boll or arguing the merits of the Tomb Raider and Resident Evil film series, butDetective Pikachuis such a fun, polished film that those comparison points really don’t make sense. The more important comparison point is Pokémon itself—and the many feature-length cartoons that it has already been attached to.

Detective Pikachuis brisk, whimsical, and family-friendly, but it particularly wins out—and survives its pitfalls—by doing something really surprising: fully breaking from the Pokémon game-plot paradigm.

Take me down to Ryme City

  • Kathyrn Newton, Justice Smith cram with their companion Pokemon into an adorably tiny car to solve a mystery.

  • Their fateful meeting. “You can talk!” “You can understand me!”

  • Tim (Justice Smith) makes a curious discovery at an apparently empty office.

  • Bill Nighy plays Howard Clifford, the man who put Ryme City together as a bold experiment in human-Pokemon relations.

  • Ryan Reynolds’ version of Pikachu is an adorably caffeinated helper.

  • Kathryn Newton’s spunk and cheesiness lands a bit in Disney Channel territory, but if we’re talking about hard-boiled detective films as a source point, then that’s not entirely out of line.

  • You can expect at least one “battle” in the film, but it’s not exactly traditional in game-series terms.

  • Psyduck bein’ Psyduck.

The film emphasizes this quality by opening with a clever fake-out. We begin with the camera flying over a sleepy, pastoral town where Pokémon meander in fields of tall grass (you know, just like in the games). Our protagonist, a 21-year-old guy named Tim (Justice Smith ofJurassic World 2), is urged by a childhood buddy to get back into the catch-’em-all swing of things—”relive the good ol’ days!”—and bumbles his attempt in comedic fashion.

No thanks, not for me, he says. Timlikeshis job as an insurance agent. Series fans might expect the film to go down a “Pokémon trainer” path from here, where Tim has a revelation, invests in a carton of fancy Pokeballs, and competes to master the strengths and weaknesses of a cast of Pokémon, all while making friends along the way.

Instead, Tim gets some really bad news, and he has to pick up the pieces—in Ryme City, the one metropolis in a Pokémon-infested Earth where trainer battlesdon’t happen. It’s a “place where humans and Pokémon live side by side,” we hear in a newsreel description on Tim’s train ride. When he arrives, the whole Pokémon-infested city unfurls. And it’s glorious.

We get to Ryme City early inDetective Pikachu, which means most of the 100-minute runtime is spent in a place where roughly 50 Pokémon types hang out in city streets, at cafes, in underground nightclubs, and around nearby canyons and valleys—either commingling with their human companions (one per resident), wandering the world in richly animated herds, or working odd jobs. A four-armed Machamp directs car traffic around a passed-out Snorlax. A Loudred finds a comical opportunity to provide sound amplification at a “concert” of sorts.

As much as I enjoyed seeingDetective Pikachuin a theater, I cannot wait for this film to land on Blu-ray so that I can savor its massive crowds of people walking side by side with so many Pokémon. Each of these sequences can whiz by with only a few seconds of visible Pokémon, but the effort to individually animate each creature and have them blend so seamlessly with their environs is some of the most impressive stuff I’ve seen in a Hollywood production since I began reviewing films at Ars Technica.

This goes doubly for the scenes where we see major Pokémon characters hold onto and climb over their human allies. I’ve never seen CGI characters’ fur and other materials mesh so perfectly with human actors in their vicinity. I actually noticed some ho-hum applications of ambient occlusion and shadows in the film’s opening sequence, so I was heartened to see that visual annoyance prove an exception, not the rule.

Sorry, Pixar. TheDetective Pikachucrew deserves your usual Oscar slot next year.

Don’tgotta catch ’em all

You can almost see Ryan Reynolds' face smirking in there.

Enlarge/You can almost see Ryan Reynolds’ face smirking in there.

But what really gives me shivers is how wellDetective Pikachuskips past the usual Pokémon-cartoon baggage. What is each Pokémon’s superpower? How should you best counter a certain creature in a battle? What do you need to effectively capture or evolve an elusive character?

Detective Pikachudoesn’t care. It doesn’t even list most of the creatures’ names, let alone their battle strengths and weaknesses, because this production is not beholden to cartoon adaptations’ usual video game tie-in issues. Again: this is not the story of a burgeoning Pokémon trainer.

Dozens of Pokémon characters whiz by with their animations, actions, and goofy voices pulling the weight of comedy and excitement, and you don’t need to know squat about the series to appreciate any of it. Think ofA New Hope‘s cantina scene, where mystery and goofiness set plenty into motion, and then imagine a film letting that perspective ride for its entire runtime. It’s awesome. That fun only multiplies if you’re familiar with a particular character’s game abilities and see how those are reflected in cute, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them moments.

This sense of constant, seamless visual candy is the difference-maker for a film whose plot is otherwise rote. This is a mystery movie that children can enjoy, after all, so you can expect all the twists and nuance of something likeThe Great Mouse Detective. Plot points fall all too conveniently into place. The protagonists take some questionable, not-at-all stealthy actions while uncovering an evil plot. Deceptions and twists reveal themselves pretty blatantly.

Tolerable flyover aboveMontana

YetDetective Pikachunever really feels rote or predictable, thanks to how it slips two secret tricks into a mystery-by-numbers screenplay: silly Pokémon, and Pikachu voice actor Ryan Reynolds.

I admit, I had my reservations about Reynolds’ role after hearing his work as the murderous, foul-mouthed voice of Deadpool. Yet within two minutes of Reynolds manifesting as Detective Pikachu (whose voice can only be understood by Tim in this Poké-world), I was sold. There’s subtlety and nuance (if you can believe it) for how Reynolds voices the world’s most popular electric-mouse mascot, and his reimagining of the typically squeaky character fits.

Believe it: Pikachu makes sense as a friendly, over-caffeinated, and eager adult who can reflect with a somber tone one moment and turn wimpy and terrified the next. The slyness and dripping sarcasm of Deadpool’s voice is nowhere to be found here, and the whole thing benefits from Tim as a confused, straight-man partner. What’s more, since Tim and Detective Pikachu don’t go down the normal Pokémon-adventure route of master and monster, we get to see Tim “grow up” in subtle, surprising ways, as opposed to his transforming into an against-all-odds action star.

Thank goodness, because the rest of the live-action cast ranges from serviceable to obnoxious. Tim’s eventual foil, a perky reporter (Kathryn Newton), has all the subtlety and gravitas of aHannah Montanaguest-star, while a haughty, sneering business executive (Chris Geere) wallops viewers over the head with the idea that we’re not supposed to like or trust him. If either actor wants to reprise their exact performance in the future, they’d be incredible fits for an average Pokémon cartoon.

But their campy, overeager performances are still a good fit and certainly not worth getting hung up over. They’re good mid-film reminders that you’re not watchingDetective Pikachufor a refreshing new twist on the usual mystery story. Instead, attend this film to savor what happens when a film crew leverages the strengths of a zany, massive cast of monsters while checking their plot-dragging, game-battling baggage at the theater door. Should every other upcoming video game film start by shamelessly copyingDetective Pikachu‘s formula, the cinematic world would be the better for it.

If Pokémon has become a part of your life for anyreason—you played it, your kids play it, or you got hooked onPokémon Gofor a few months—go see this hilarious, sweet, and wide-eyed film. If not, prepare to have a perfectly good time while being confused by whatever the heck a Gengar is.

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