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Movie review: ‘Pokémon Detective Pickachu’ transports audiences into nostalgia-filled world

(Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

"Pokémon: Detective Pikachu"

Directed by Rob Letterman

Warner Bros. Pictures


By Evan Charfauros

May 9, 2019 11:01 p.m.

The 8-bit blips of black-and-white sprites in Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue could not compare to the epic battles the players conjured in their minds.

More than 20 years later, those same players can finally watch Pikachu fight Mewtwo on the big screen.

Following Red’s and Blue’s popularity, the Pokémon franchise blossomed into a media giant with the release of a long-running anime, trading card game and manga series.

Seven more generations of video games followed the original, with an eighth on the way this year. Waning interest in the franchise was arguably revitalized by the worldwide phenomenon that was the Pokémon Go mobile app in 2016. In a culmination of the immense popularity, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is the franchise’s first attempt at a live-action motion picture.

Featuring a civilization in which humans and Pokémon live side by side, the film follows Tim Goodman’s (Justice Smith) investigation into his missing detective father with the help of an adorable talking Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds).

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Like the Pokémon games themselves, “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” targets a younger audience while simultaneously drawing in adults through its unabashed nostalgic appeal. And, like the Pokémon games before it, the film absolutely succeeds in doing both.

The overall storyline is largely predictable, but seems perfect for younger viewers, as it follows a simplistic mystery with plenty of action – and some of the minor twists were admittedly surprising. Children are unlikely to care about the plot holes and will likely be mesmerized by the cool and cuddly Pokémon. Pikachu, in particular, is cuter than in any previous appearance.

It’s a bit difficult to get used to famously R-rated actor Reynolds’ unmistakable voice emerging from a family-friendly fuzzball. Pikachu makes his share of adult jokes, causing a bit of a disconnect with his irresistibly fluffy exterior. But Reynolds’ delivery is strong, providing an emotional range for his animated character.

There are no gym badges involved, but the plot captures the franchise’s adventurous spirit. Like in every Pokémon game, underqualified kids travel to bustling new cities and end up sneaking around a high-tech facility to single-handedly take down a shadowy, nefarious organization. And while the story can seem a little inconsistent if you think too hard about it, the movie as a whole instills a sense of wonder and adventure in the viewer that stands out regardless of the details.

Longtime Pokémon fans will likely have a field day identifying every monster that scampers, flits or trots across the background. I counted approximately 50 unique Pokémon species in the film from across seven generations of video games. This is actually only a small portion of the 809 Pokémon in the games, and the limited roster starts to show once you see the fourth or fifth Audino, Treecko or Sneasel trotting around. However, the level of detail put into the fur, feathers and scales – not to mention flaming tails – on the featured Pokémon more than makes up for a lack of variety.

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And far more than 50 Pokémon appear if you count images on signs, posters and other scenery. The main city setting is a rich tapestry of Pokémon-themed restaurants, businesses and architecture. With an astounding number of Easter eggs and references packed into just about every scene, the care and effort that the filmmakers poured into the movie seems tangible.

To be fair, the quality of many aspects of “Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is comparable to the average kids’ movie. Did any actor provide an Oscar-worthy performance? No. Did every action scene feel necessary? No. Was any of the writing outstanding? No. But do any of those things matter while watching a herd of adorable high-definition Bulbasaurs amble across a riverbed as they make little squeaky noises? Not at all. Seeing your childhood leap to life on screen makes the film worthwhile.

As for adults who didn’t grow up with Pokémon, the experience might be unremarkable. At the very least, however, non-Pokémon fans can likely appreciate the feats of computer animation showcased in the film. From the rubber, playground ball texture of Mr. Mime’s body to the leaves on the trees of Torterra’s back, the detail on each Pokémon helps it blend in flawlessly with the real world.

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is clearly for young trainers everywhere, who will likely forgive the film’s flaws. But for countless older fans, it’s an hour and 44 minutes to forget about the stress of adult life and transform back into the kid who just wanted to catch ’em all.

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Evan Charfauros
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