Pokémon: Detective Pikachu Review [Spoiler-Free]

By Daryl Harding

Pokémon makes the leap from your handheld console to the big screen in its first live-action film. How effective is it?

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu was a huge gamble for all companies involved. Not only did the film have the “video game adaption” stigma attached to it, but somehow, they had to bring Pokémon into the real world without making them look goofy. Not a small feat in the slightest. Director Rob Letterman (Shark Tale, Goosebumps) had a task the size of a Wailord under his belt, so was he and his team able to pull it off?

Pikachu looking through a magnifying glass
Pikachu equipping the Scope Lens, upping its critical hit ratio.

Catching the Pokémon Plot

Loosely based off the game of the same name, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu follows former Pokémon trainer Tim Goodman as he travels to Ryme City after his father, Harry, goes missing. Along the way, he meets a Pikachu with the unique skills of a world-class detective, and the ability to talk to Tim. Teaming up with Detective Pikachu, reporter Lucy Stevens and her Psyduck, Tim follows the clues to uncover the mystery behind his father’s disappearance and save the Pokémon world.

If you’re looking for a deep plot that’ll keep you guessing, you’re going to need to look further than the snowy Sinnoh region, because you’re not getting it here. From story beat to story beat, the entire plot felt very simple, and like ones I’ve seen before – not only in an animated film, but the Pokémon anime as well, albeit in different ways. Complexity is not the game version here.

That being said, the film didn’t need to be complex or thrilling. It felt like a breath of fresh air watching something this heartwarming and fun on screen. From the moment that Tim tried to catch his first Pokémon (again), I knew what the tone of the film was going to be, and I was okay with that. Yes, this is a children’s film through and through, but after watching the needlessly complicated Power of Us film last year, a simple Pokémon film was nice.

Pikachu falling towards Charizard's mouth
Fried Pikachu, the tastiest snack since Slowpoke Tail.

Capturing the Characters

Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith, was a great choice to bring us into the new Pokémon cinematic universe. The producers had two choices: go against the games and age up the trainers, or have an older jaded ex-trainer who slowly succumbs again to the cuteness of Pokémon. Going with the second option worked wonders here, especially when acting against the great Bill Nighy as Howard Clifford and Ken Watanabe as Lieutenant Hide Yoshida, who sold both the world of Ryme City and Pokémon.

Lucy Stevens, played by Kathryn Newton, is Tim’s reporter partner human throughout the film. While I enjoyed Newton’s presence on screen, at times her performance was a little too hammy compared to Smith’s more subdued one. I felt like Smith was acting in a film, while Newton was acting in a high-budget Nickelodeon special.

However, both were overshadowed by the star of the film, Ryan Reynolds as Detective Pikachu, played here as a PG version of his other franchise character, Deadpool. Detective Pikachu is just as wisecracking but lacking the crassness. At times, it felt like I was watching a Deadpool movie, as they share a lot of the same actors, until a Pokémon spoke and I was back in Ryme City. Lastly, unknown (and uncredited) actor “Paul Kitson” brings Tim’s Dad to life in a very unexpected way, likely surprising many people, myself included.

Pikachu looking angry while Tim looks casual
Uncovering the clues…

Adapting The Beloved Game World

Going into Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, I wasn’t sure what to expect. On the one hand, I was excited to see a live action Pokémon film, as I’ve loved the franchise ever since I got the Special Pikachu Edition GameBoy Colour and Pokémon Yellow in 1999. On the other hand, it was a live-action Pokémon film, something that doesn’t make all that much sense in my head.

But they pulled it off. Ryme City felt like a real place, with living and breathing creatures in it. It helped that a lot of the structures dotting the cityscape were based on real-life locations; I recognized Shinjuku’s Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower and London’s One Canada Square. This, along with visual references to Tokyo streets, helped ground the city, and by extension the Pokémon world.

The character Ludicolo as a bartender
LUDICOLO!

There is no doubt in my mind that the VFX team who worked on this film should be given an Academy Award. Being able to bring this many creatures to life, and make them feel like they can exist, is outstanding. Out of all the Pokémon on screen, the ones that really stood out were the Bulbasaurs, who got an audible “kawaii~” from two Japanese girls behind me, and the Gyarados, which looked as terrifying (and surprisingly cute) as it should have. Only a one second shot of Audino felt a bit strange to me, but some Pokémon took more adjusting to than others, and with only a second of screen-time, it wasn’t able to get past the “odd looking” stage.

As for Pikachu – I couldn’t stop looking at him. Each individual animated tuft of fur was painstakingly detailed, as was every single emotion on his face. Ryan Reynolds said in an interview that he was able to see his own quirks in Pikachu’s face, and I wholly agree with him. It’d be a hard choice to decide who was animated (and mo-capped) better, Pikachu or Thanos from Avengers: Endgame.

Pikachu being adorable
How can you not love him?

The Verdict

As a huge fan of the Pokémon franchise, I was overjoyed while watching Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. All the little references to the video games, anime and side media are here, even canonizing the film in one or two of the continuities (though I won’t mention which ones due to spoilers). The film didn’t overly exceed my expectations, as I was already too hyped for the film to begin with, but it did subvert them in interesting ways that I wasn’t expecting. The trailers show you nothing about the film and it is better off for it.

One downside I could see is that you might need a little Pokémon knowledge to get some of the underlying concepts of the film, and to understand why certain things are a certain way. Children likely won’t care, but if you’re an adult who has never played any of the games, be prepared to be a little confused.

Pikachu sitting on Tim's shoulder
Tim rocking the Ash Ketchum look.

All in all, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a wonderful PG Deadpool film that won’t win any awards for its writing, but will for the creature animation (and heart).

Warner Bros, Toho, and The Pokémon Company have already green-lit a sequel to Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, so it’ll be interesting to see where they go from here. Whether they’ll stick to the Ryme City side of the Pokémon World or tackle another region is unknown. I suppose we’ll find out next time…


Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is currently showing in Japan and will open worldwide between the 8th and 10th of May. You can see find US screening times on Fandango.

8

The Good

  • Brilliant CG and mo-cap.
  • Brought the world of Pokémon to life.
  • Fantsatic chemistry between Tim and Pikachu.

The Bad

  • Predicable plot that we've seen many times before.
  • Some prior knowledge of Pokémon needed.
  • Lack of Slowpoke.
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Daryl Harding

Writer/Video Maker/Freelancer living in Japan making stuff about the things he loves.

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