It’s no secret that video games and traditional Hollywood cinema have had a long, dysfunctional relationship. Despite movie producers jumping as early as the dawn of the 1990s onto the video game bandwagon—with incredible talent like Dustin Hoffman and Bob Hoskins competing to star in the Super Mario Bros. train wreck—nearly 30 years later, there has never been a good video game movie adaptation. Hence the peculiarity of Detective Pikachu’s fairly well-received arrival.
While several fantastic films that have been highly influenced by video game tropes and iconography—I myself am partial to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Wreck-It Ralph, and Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ready Player One—all of those films were either based on original ideas or some form of literary storytelling that embraced an aesthetic but maintained a more palatable storytelling structure at their core. This has continued to be the world of difference between those films and adapting the actual nonlinear, repetitious quality of video game plots and the (until recently) wafer-thin characterization that accompanied them, often intended to allow players to insert their personalities into blank avatars.
These issues seemed destined to weigh down a Hollywood Pokémon movie too. As a franchise launched in 1996 around the premise “Gotta catch ‘em all,” the Pokémon series is defined by its repetition and episodic nature. In most iterations of its story (which is almost always the same), gamers are asked to become a “Pokémon Trainer,” which is parlance in this fictional world for being someone who gets their jollies by going out in the wilderness to capture super-powered animals and then force them into vicious cockfights against other animals. But you know, they all look cute while doing it, so it’s okay…. I guess? Anyway, the player wanders around an open-world collecting new “pocket monsters” with different abilities and then sics them on other trainers’ Pokémon, or just feral creatures minding their own business, with the goal of collecting and evolving these pets into elite fighters. The game only ends when gamers have managed to capture all available Pokémon and get tired of training them to a preferred power level.
While this concept proved a fantastic setup for numerous games and the serialized format of a children’s anime—one where still little amounts of logic were required—crafting a three-act narrative around it for a popular blockbuster seemed daunting. It still does, because Pokémon: Detective Pikachu essentially jettisons the whole concept upon which the Poké empire is built.
Other than a handful of admittedly amusing early scenes that introduce the basic idea of becoming a Pokémon Trainer and collecting animals in the wild, Detective Pikachu more or less throws that premise to the wind. However, this is not because it lacks the budget or imagination for adapting the world of Pokémon—it is simply switching out a video game vernacular for a cinematic one.
By taking a page from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and other savvier family entertainment, Detective Pikachu is what its title suggests: a mystery film starring the most beloved of Pokémon and the mascot of the whole series, Pikachu. The idea itself stems from an off-shoot of traditional Pokémon games of the same name. Released in 2016, the video game Detective Pikachu is responsible for the idea of a talking electric rodent in a deerstalker cap solving mysteries. Yet the film pushes it so many steps past that, that before you know it, the picture is wandering down seedy and rainsoaked alleyways.
Happily cherrypicking influences from classic noir as much as family movies, director and co-writer Letterman and his legion of collaborators pull from a cornucopia of big screen influences to build a world stuffed to the brim with meticulously faithful video game characters and also sturdy cinematic foundations. The metropolis within which Pikachu begins his investigation is named Rhyme City and is a visual collage of New York, London, and Tokyo, combining the east and west. Yet it is also pulling from other films that have likewise blended Trans-Pacific cultures. With its ostensibly Western city being populated with foul alley-side bars reminiscent of post-war Japan, the movie is as much evoking the visual aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as it is Nintendo.
This is not to say that the Pokémon themselves get short shrift. Impressively expensive CGI is indulged so every single hair on Pikachu’s plush body looks photorealistic and eminently huggable. Similarly, as Rhyme City is a location where Pokémon fighting is banned (thereby skipping the unpleasant subtexts of a game franchise that’s never looked too closely at its animal rights component), we rarely see the details of typical Pokémon culture… except for an underground fight club Detective Pikachu stumbles on where a three-dimensional Charizard is scarred and battle-weary with the added details of carnage lining his snout.
The emphasis on giving a mild texture of grittiness to even the softest Pokémon and juxtaposing them against real urbane environments goes a very long way toward building both a familiarity for Poké fans and an inviting movie world that non-gamers might not expect. Jigglypuff is still a singer, but now of the late night lounge variety in a grimey bar. This recalibration of expectation also applies to the human characters populating Rhyme City who stem from 1940s Hollywood crime movie archetypes, be it Bill Nighy’s deceptively fragile and benevolent old blue blood in a wheelchair, a la The Big Sleep, or Kathryn Newton’s Lucy, a would-be ace reporter out of the His Girl Friday mold who along with her Psyduck is going to make her big break by exposing corruption at the very top.
These world-building choices realize that adapting a video game does not mean sacrificing filmic elements for video game fidelity, while still being recognizably Pokémon. But these broader strokes only work because the core of Detective Pikachu’s center of gravity is so perfectly Ryan Reynolds.
When we sat down with the actor in Tokyo last month, he admitted that he was only broadly familiar with the world of Pokémon on the day Rob Letterman and Warner Bros. approached him about the movie. Saying the mandate was to “be Ryan Reynolds,” he also remembered worrying, “Am I the right guy to play Pikachu? Because I don’t have any skin in the game, my feedback to the studio is, ‘Is there someone else who’s supposed to be playing Detective Pikachu and I shouldn’t?’”
The answer, as it turned out, was nobody really knows. The classic image of Pikachu that has spread across pop culture—via games, anime, and general pop culture osmosis—is that of a cute little animal who can only speak his name or fractional syllables of it. “Pikachu,” “Pika,” “Pi,” or just “Chu” is the beginning and end of what Pikachu is supposed to sound like. While the original Nintendo 3DS Detective Pikachu introduced the concept of a speaking Pokémon, it remained the province of hardcore fans’ knowledge. That obscurity allowed the project to be literally tailored to modern movie audiences’ blockbuster tastes without betraying the core essence of the property.
Letterman also explained to us that they did tests of Pikachu animation speaking with various actors’ voice clips inserted in—others tested included Danny DeVito, Dwayne Johnson, and Mark Wahlberg—and it became clear that the implicit irony of a cute woodland creature speaking with the wry detachment of Ryan Reynolds’ most popular roles created the best cognitive dissonance that an entire comedy could be built around. The mandate of Reynolds playing “Ryan Reynolds,” or at least a version of what audiences perceive that to mean, is why Detective Pikachu works.
A family comedy derived of contrasts, it is the smash-cut whiplash induced by juxtaposing the lightness of cuddly Pokémon designs and the shadowiness of classic noir, of placing state of the art CGI characters on analogue 35mm film shot on real sets and locations, and the inferred exuberance of Pikachu’s design being sedated by Reynolds’ weary acerbic cadence and improvisations. It knows you’re thinking of Deadpool as Pikachu complains about needing another shot of caffeine to feed his addiction. The cognitive dissonance of video game imagery and cinematic language sharing the same space, and openly inviting you to notice the natural incongruity, is how Detective Pikachu has cracked at least one successful code for making a solid video game adaptation.
This is not to say the movie is perfect. Actually, far from it. While the plot mirrors many big screen mysteries and pseudo-noirs, albeit with broad child-friendly story beats, the actual narrative feels like a patchwork of ideas, relegating the third act to a rather perfunctory CGI-heavy climax that loses so much of the wit and charm that makes the first two-thirds of the film so enjoyable. And barring some rather subversive humor at the expense of modern news media’s corporatization, the final resolution relies too heavily on standard blockbuster tropes and is not nearly as clever as the sight of Pikachu rubbing Psyduck’s feet so as to prevent a psychic “episode” in the deranged duck. This noticeable dip undermines the overall quality of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, but it does not negate it.
In the end, the refreshingly standalone Pikachu does set-up doing a more traditional Pokémon movie as an inevitable spinoff, but Detective Pikachu’s ability to fit a round peg in a square hole makes one wonder if the franchise has already found its lightning on the first strike.