Video game movies have a long history of being poorly received by critics and fans alike. Ask any gamer or movie buff for a list of good film adaptations of video games, and you’ll maybe get one or two suggestions, if any. Enter Pokémon Detective Pikachu, the adaptation of the Nintendo 3DS game of the same name. Nintendo, the video game juggernaut behind the massively successful Pokémon franchise, has historically been stingy with licensing its properties for film adaptations. In fact, Detective Pikachu is the first live-action adaptation of a Nintendo property in over 25 years. The odds seem like they would be stacked against this movie, but thankfully, it defies the long-standing tradition of bad video game adaptations by delivering a cute little kids movie. The result is nothing spectacular, but as far as children’s movies go, it’s fun enough.
The film takes place in the Pokémon universe, a world inhabited by a wide variety of critters—some monstrous, some cuddly. Fans of the franchise, like myself, will delight in trying to spot all the various Pokémon creatures in the background, but anyone else might be put off by the barrage of computer-generated imagery. The story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), an insurance salesman who investigates the apparent death of his estranged father with the help of his father’s Pokémon partner, a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) clad in a Sherlock Holmes hat. Goodman and the Pikachu are magically able to communicate, even though no one else can understand the fuzzy yellow detective. The duo’s hunt for clues takes them through Ryme City, a futuristic utopia where wild Pokémon coexist alongside humans. Their investigation reveals that Goodman’s father was on the trail of a case involving Mewtwo, a dangerous, powerful genetically engineered Pokémon with psychic abilities. A series of twists and turns lead the mystery-solving duo to realize that perhaps Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy), the zillionaire philanthropist and founder of Ryme City, might be behind it all.
Much of the film’s success will depend on your familiarity with the Pokémon franchise. The movie does not delve deep into the lore of the games or the anime series, but the film assumes the viewer has a basic knowledge of the Pokémon universe and the creatures that inhabit it. If you are a parent or sibling who gets dragged to see this by a child, you will likely feel a little alienated. If you’re a fan of the franchise, however, you’ll probably find things a little easier to follow.
Thankfully, Detective Pikachu doesn’t indulge in callbacks or references that only older fans will catch. Fan service is tricky to get right; if handled poorly, you can wind up with something like last year’s Halloween reboot, which inserted one too many winks to the fans and came across as smug. Detective Pikachu avoids this problem altogether by barely including references for older fans of the series. The closest thing the movie gets to being self-referential is a brief scene in which Pikachu himself sings the Pokémon anime’s original theme song. Otherwise, this is aimed strictly at younger fans of the series. This is not to say that older fans can’t enjoy the film, just that they should come in with a different set of expectations.
Detective Pikachu is a straightforward kids movie of the “young person befriends a magic creature” variety. It feels strikingly similar to the 2017 kids movie Monster Trucks and last year’s Bumblebee, which both included young adult characters who befriend cutesy CGI characters. Moreover, Detective Pikachu and Bumblebee share the oddly specific plot point of the protagonist struggling to overcome the loss of a parent as part of their character arc. This is all to say that Detective Pikachu is pretty generic in terms of story. It hits all the plot beats you would expect, and the mystery itself is pretty predictable.
The strength of this movie lies primarily on Ryan Reynolds’s voice performance as the titular Pokémon character. Not only does Reynolds add a necessary bit of flair to what would otherwise be a routine kid’s movie, he also has good chemistry with Justice Smith, who plays a perfectly serviceable (if not bland) comic foil. It also helps if you’re easily swayed by cute things. The character animation for Pikachu is simply adorable. Although some of the other Pokémon in the film lose their cartoony charm in the transition to photorealistic computer animation, Pikachu is certainly a memorably endearing animated character.
The bar for movie adaptations of video games is unfortunately pretty low. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is pretty generic, but it’s reasonably well-constructed and well-acted. It succeeds because it plays it safe and goes for everything you’d expect. It will still probably only appeal to fans, but even most video game adaptations can’t achieve that honor. This movie will hardly go down as a cinematic classic, but it’s fun in the moment and a hopeful sign that maybe we will get better video game adaptations on the big screen in the near future.