I am a fan of Pokemon. I’ve played the games since Red and Blue were first released and while I don’t obsess over them, I can point to evidence that I have played nearly every mainline release in the series. While knowledge of or nostalgia for Pokemon is certain to greatly enhance a person’s enjoyment of Pokemon: Detective Pikachu, I think is works without much affection for its base series.
Knowledge of the details of the Pokemon world and knowledge of the close to one thousand little creatures that inhabit it are a definite plus for watching this movie. It does some work in explaining how things work, but there are significant chunks of background stuff that are helpful to a viewer. Like the opening scene with the Cubone. Tim, the protagonist, makes a comment about its bone helmet while trying to catch it. The movie never really explains what Pokemon fans already know, that a Cubone wears the skull of its dead mother as a helmet. That is the kind of information a player would find in their pokedex or the cartoon would explain. This movie doesn’t have time to explain all of the series’ accompanying nonsense; it just assumes the player is familiar. For the most part this works; most pokemon are pretty self-explanatory. The big dragon with fire on its tail breaths fire, the toads with big flower bulbs on their backs have plant abilities. When the movie needs the player to know a stranger fact, like the fact that psyduck’s have trouble controlling their psychic powers under stress, it tells the viewer. Most of the incidental stuff is just there to be spotted by fans, and the movie does a great job of filling the frame with incidental stuff.
The cast is a nice mix of relative newcomers and some favorites. I loved seeing Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe as secondary characters. Justice Smith is a rising star, who has been enjoyable in largely enjoyable misfires like The Get Down and Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom. The star is Ryan Reynolds, who lends his voice to Pikachu, doing a PG version of his Deadpool schtick. It mostly works.
One part of the movie that unreservedly shines is its effects. I was not crazy about the realistic Pokemon renders in the trailers, but pretty quickly in the movie I not only got used to them, I became pretty impressed with how good they looked. It isn’t easy to turn fanciful, cartoonish monsters into realistic creatures, but they did it. Pikachu in particular is a success, with him appearing wonderfully real, furry and expressive.
Detective Pikachu plays out like a Blade Runner for babies; it is a child’s first noir story. And while it can’t quite bring the mystery home in a truly satisfactory way, it mostly works. Tim is a lapsed Pokemon fanatic who is called to Ryme City to settle affairs after the apparent death of his estranged father. His father was an ace detective who disappeared on a case. At first, Tim has no interest in picking up where his father left off, he just wants to deal with his dad’s stuff and get back to his insurance job. That changes when he finds his dad’s Pikachu, who for some reason can talk. This Pikachu considers himself a great detective, but he has amnesia so he doesn’t remember what happened to Tim’s dad. The two of them team up to solve Tim’s dad’s last case.
The way the mystery plays out is where it is most apparent that this is a movie for kids. I pretty much sorted out all of the characters immediately and what their roles would be. There are a couple of bonkers twists near the end that I couldn’t predict, but the general roles of every character was pretty much immediately apparent to any savvy viewer. It is a simple mystery, but a largely satisfying one up until the near the end.
That is the movie in a nutshell; deceptively simple and largely satisfying. All of the Pokemon nonsense might be hard to grasp for the uninitiated, but the parts needed to understand the film are simple.