Film Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Bringing the video game of the same name to the screen, this all-ages adventure serves up anarchic fun.
Film Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Image © 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Legendary. All rights reserved.

When Pokémon Detective Pikachu first bounced across handheld video game consoles in 2016, it did so with an inspired premise. Forget catching them all, then training, battling and trading pocket monsters; instead, the franchise’s best-known character donned a deerstalker, played sleuth, and solved mysteries with a two-legged sidekick. The idea cuts to the heart of many stories about humanity’s relationship with other critters, and expands upon one of the core aspects that have always made Pokémon such a hit. Whether it’s a tale about a boy and an extra-terrestrial, a kid and a pelican, a teenager and her robot car, or circus children and a flying elephant — or, in the current case, folks en masse befriending pint-sized creatures they keep as pets — the need to connect retains pride of place.


An instant shoo-in for a big-screen adaptation, and now reaching cinemas under the direction of family-friendly filmmaker Rob Letterman (Monsters vs. Aliens, Gulliver’s Travels, Goosebumps), Pokémon Detective Pikachu dwells in a world where people and pokémon live side by side. Sharing your days with a psyduck that occasionally explodes, a cranky canine-esque snubbull or a fire-breathing dragon-type charizard is standard practice, as the constant comments about human protagonist Tim Goodman’s (played by Justice Smith, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) monster-free status make plain. Once, the 21-year-old insurance adjustor wanted to train pokémon himself, although now he insists that he’s happy alone. But then tragedy strikes, forcing him not only to visit the pocket monster-filled metropolis of Ryme City, but to team up with his estranged cop dad’s pikachu partner.

Embarking upon a shared quest to discover what happened to the man they have in common, this new duo is also linked by language. While humans usually can’t understand pokémon, Tim can comprehend everything that comes out of Detective Pikachu’s mouth. Voiced by Ryan Reynolds, the critter loves coffee, and wisecracks like the actor’s other famous character (albeit with a cleaner vocabulary than Deadpool) and is determined to do his departed human justice, all while forming a bond with his new pal. Tim follows suit, albeit reluctantly at first.

As co-scripted by Letterman, with Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit (TV’s The Tick) and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) also earning screenwriting credits, Pokémon Detective Pikachu may literalise the special relationship between its two central figures; however the film’s world-building capabilities are just as crucial. Vibrant CGI brings the pokémon to life, rendering the movie’s titular character a yellow-hued, fur-covered, electricity-shooting visual delight, and ensuring that the futuristic Ryme City teems with anarchic detail. Indeed, despite how it might sound on paper, the feature doesn’t quite filter all things Pokémon through film noir as per Who Framed Roger Rabbit, although it leans in that direction. In toying with the same broad, enjoyable concept, it creates an aesthetically and tonally offbeat realm where co-existing — and connecting — proves equal parts adorable, understandable, amusing and emotional.

Add chaotic to the list, also. Pokémon Detective Pikachu is as much a critter-based coming-of-age tale as an odd-couple gumshoe adventure, boasting the heart of the former and the verve of the latter. Encompassing another cop (Ken Watanabe, Isle of Dogs), an aspiring investigative reporter (Kathryn Newton, Ben Is Back), a business mogul (Bill Nighy, Sometimes Always Never) and his underhanded son (Chris Geere, You’re the Worst), and a secreted-away scientist (Rita Ora, Fifty Shades Freed), the film isn’t light on plot or twists, feeling both purposefully silly and slightly overstuffed. But, embracing its fantastical escapes with earnestness and committed performances, it’s never less than gleefully fun. That’s a trait often missing from games-turned-movies, apps-turned-animations and Japanese properties-turned-western remakes, let alone the first live-action film in a 22-strong franchise.

3 stars ★★★

Pokémon Detective Pikachu
Director: Rob Letterman
US, 2019, 104 mins
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: PG
Release date: 9 May 2019

Sarah Ward

Thursday 9 May, 2019

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay