Movie Review: Detective Pikachu a hit

2019 has been a good time to be a ’90s kid.

Following an influx of films and television shows cashing in on ’80s nostalgia (Stranger Things, IT and Ready Player One are among the most prominent examples), there are hints of a ’90s nostalgia wave on the horizon. While Captain Marvel paid homage to all the Blockbusters and Radio Shacks of the past, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a wink and shoulder nudge for kids who grew up in the late ’90s – an era many will remember as Pokémania.

Rob Letterman’s Detective is the biggest thing to happen to the Pokémon fan base since Pokémon GO had people walking in the street with their nose glued to their phones in summer 2016. It’s the live action Pokémon movie fans have been dreaming of since they were kids – except, no, it isn’t. Not quite. Warner Bros. decided to hold off on the Pokéball throwing, trainer battling and badge collecting aspects that are staples to the core series, likely saving those elements for later installments (depending on this one’s success, of course).

Instead, what trainers in the audience will get is a mystery-lite plot featuring a talking Pikachu voiced by Ryan Reynolds, of all people. The story will both be familiar and confounding to fans of the games, anime and trading cards – it takes place in Ryme City, a stylized Tokyo where humans and Pokémon alike congregate. Instead of catching the standard full team of six Pokémon, everyone has one Pokémon, known as their partner Pokémon, who walk around with their trainer largely outside of their Pokéball like a pet.

The story follows Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith, most recognizable from his supporting role in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), a Pokémon-less teenager who arrives in Ryme City after his father, a police captain, is declared deceased. Visiting his father’s apartment, he meets up with his father’s Pokémon Pikachu – a yellow squirrel-like creature with the ability to control electricity, for those without Pokédexes.

It’s at first a little disconcerting to observe the adorable creature communicate as a fully adult man, but the CGI detail on most of these monsters is incredible, and watching them on screen is a visual treat. Pikachu moves on screen like a possessed Build-A-Bear, each piece of fur strikingly detailed, every patter of its feet against a surface palpable. The trailers marketing the film don’t do the finished product justice – for the vast majority, the Pokémon look photorealistic, their cartoonish designs adapted seamlessly to the live action aesthetic.

And that’s the true gift this movie brings to Pokémon fans, is seeing the creatures they’ve spent years catching, trading and battling coming to life. Numerous establishing and tracking shots of the film’s various settings (including a laboratory, forest and riverbed outside of the city) are packed to the brim with Pokémon naturally inhabiting the territory. It’s impossible to catch ‘em all in one viewing (an absolutely deliberate design choice by Letterman). Most are classic monsters from the original Pokémon Red and Blue games, though fans of later games will also be satisfied with their representation. The detail and world-building of this project is among the quality of escapism gold standards like Star Wars.

It’s a good thing Letterman and the production team paid such scrupulous attention to pleasing Pokémon fans, because the story and acting (aside from Reynolds’ voice performance) are mostly nonsensical – harmless at best, grating at worst. Pikachu convinces Goodman his father isn’t dead, and they set out to investigate the circumstances surrounding his death. Cleverly, the screenplay (penned by Letterman, Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit and Derek Connolly) shares similarities with the animated Pokémon: The First Movie, which featured a fan favorite Legendary Pokémon Mewtwo at the center of an experiment gone awry.

Those with no allegiance to the Pocket Monster franchise can skip over this one without worry. All joy is derived from the nostalgia trip this movie provides in spades for fans. Pokémaniacs will leave the theater to stock up on Pokéballs in anticipation for the next adventure.