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Hollywood has a rough track record with successful video game movie adaptations and the latest entrant into the battle arena, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu sounds like something that, despite the success of their full-length animated predecessors, couldn’t work and yet does a solid job avoiding instant death. Inspired by the eponymous Nintendo game starring everyone’s favorite electric rodent Pokémon: Detective Pikachu capitalizes on the recent wave of Pokémon madness and rewards its loyal fans with a new reason to bust out the Red and Gold editions of the Pokémon games.
As far as the formula goes, it hits standard buddy cop team comedy checklist: one-liners that will surprise adults while sailing effortlessly over their kids’ heads, slightly damaged heroes and movie villains with a bit of 80’s camp. The movie cribs parts of Memento, Beverly Hills Cop and Hot Fuzz, and director Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens) takes those moments, blends them with a few life lessons, elaborate set pieces and a touch of noir; the film was shot on 35MM a unique approach for a kids movie with a wide visual scale.
Rhyme City is a candy-coated neon utopia where humans and Pokémon live and work in harmony but like all great cities, there’s a dark underbelly. Smack in the middle of an existential crisis is Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who is thrust into a conspiracy involving his missing detective father, city founders The Clifford Corporation, a deeply invested junior journalist and amnestic titular hero, Pikachu.
When Pikachu and Tim meet, they are both are piecing the puzzle surrounding Harry’s disappearance and his connection to the seemingly benevolent Clifford Corporation. One wacky misunderstanding, dry humor exchange, and a building chase later, they bond at a bar over excessive cups of coffee (Pikachu is an addict; there are levels here), agreeing that they need to work together to solve the case. A highlight moment comes during an interrogation scene featuring Mr. Mime that shows just how weird the Poké universe can be and how dark good cop/bad Pikachu can go. Junior journalist Lucy Stevens (Katheryn Newton of Big Little Lies) enters the mix with intel that brings all three together (four if you count her neurotic Pokémon, Psyduck) to advance the plot. Through no fault of her own, the storyline falls right into well-traveled Scooby Doo: The Movie territory, hitting all the beats of a kids movie spiced with adult low brow humor moments.
While it does drag at some points and a few jokes get a little stale, it is a kid’s movie, after all; it did a solid job keeping the entertainment factor up while offering glimpses into the humanity that exists in people and Pokémon. Early on, Tim is out with a friend hurling Pokéballs at an unsuspecting Cubone (there are 151 types featured in the movie, you will spend time trying to name) having the time of his life before it registers that he is an adult hurling Pokéballs in a field. It’s a little sad to see, honestly.
At the heart of the story though are three intersecting lives connecting on a surreal backdrop like Rhyme City. Pikachu struggles to remember what happened to him, keeping Tim’s spirits up and finding some kind of redemption. Meanwhile, Tim is trying to reconcile his daddy issues (yes, this is a phrase that comes out of a character’s mouth. I’ll let you guess who) while simultaneously struggling with the ennui of being lost in the world. This is a weirdly deep movie. In Lucy, we see a young woman who believes in her capabilities despite being dismissed at every turn; there are some casual misogynist moments thrown in Lucy’s direction by grown men that are groan-worthy. She’s also the least-developed character of the bunch, which is odd given how much weight she carries going into the third act. What they all have in common is that they are trying to trust in something, in themselves and in each other, which for kids and adults, serves as a decent reminder that we all need somebody. Again, this is a super deep movie. Pikachu tells Tim in a speech designed to inspire confidence during a moment of doubt, “You just feel it in your jellies,” and the wild thing is, for this movie, you kinda just do.
Ryan Reynolds hits his ad lib stride as PG versions of his Deadpool-schtick emerge from the fluffy yellow face of Pikachu; a few really good ones landed and thinking on it now, it's wild they let some of them rock. From Pikachu’s overcaffeinated Pepe Silvia-level conspiracy board rant to genuine emotional moments (we’re talking full watery eyes here), there is vulnerability and versatility on his vocal performance that makes the movie feel like it’s more than just a cash in on brand recognition. Justice Smith is charming as the poor guy who understands Pokémon despite his best efforts not to. Katheryn Newton serves as the straight man managing contrasting multiple energies. While her screen time is substantial, Lucy still doesn’t feel like a character to follow but Newton does the best she can with what she’s given and does well.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu hits two sweet spots for nerds; nostalgia for the past and appreciation for the present. Twenty-five years in, the card and video game properties are still some of the best selling titles in the world. When a new game rolls out, it immediately catches the attention of casual fans and hardcore obsessives. The movie is no different. There is a dork factor in playing with Pokémon, but remember that in a world that feels a little too intense, it’s okay to feel the joy in taking your leveled up squad into the ring and cleaning out someone’s Pokédex. You're never too old to keep being young and keeping that same energy. I’m an adult and almost sprained my thumb on Pokémon Go in the middle of Central Park chasing a water type Pokémon. You did it too, don’t lie.
I may have been in my feelings diving into some of the life advice gleaned from the fuzzy brightness of it all but it is a pretty feel-good movie. It’s good to have hobbies and better to share it with friends; being a citizen on this planet is scary, we all have to evolve and we just have to trust the jellies.