Image: Warner Bros © 2019 Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc.

Detective Pikachu: the first good video game movie?

There was a moment while watching Detective Pikachu when I lost it. Laughing, crying, coughing, proper hysterics. Nothing particularly funny was going on, Justice Smith’s Tim was just having a conversation with the titular Pokémon. But out of that adorable little fluffy Pikachu’s mouth was coming Ryan Reynolds’s voice, in full PG-13 Deadpool mode. Reynolds’s casting in the film surprised and confused all, but soon everyone was behind it. And they were right, the casting choice making what could have been another addition to the pantheon of terrible video game adaptations a fun, hilarious, heartfelt family film pleasing fans of the video game.

Detective Pikachu doesn’t have the right to be as good as it is

Detective Pikachu is far from a perfect film, with a ridiculous plot, underwritten characters and some truly terrible dialogue. But none of that really matters. It’s just so much fun. The set-pieces are heaps of fun brilliantly brought to life by the animators, who create a beautiful world that you don’t want to leave. The Bulbasaur sequence is a wonderful moment showcasing the beauty of Pokémon, while little touches like some Machomp acting as traffic wardens create a real world that you don’t question. The comedy shines, from Pikachu’s coffee addiction to an incredible interrogation of a Mr. Mime that has a deliciously dark punchline. The performances aren’t bad either, on the whole, with the two leads shining. Justice Smith underplays the comedic moments perfectly, refreshing after his over the top character in Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, while Reynolds does what Reynolds does best. His performance of the iconic Pokémon theme song is side-splitting and endearing, and still may not be the highlight of the film (although, it probably is). The movie has a lot going for it that made it such a commercial and, more importantly, critical success.

But why are people calling this the first good video game movie? When it comes to adaptations, the creative team has to do more than just make a good film. They need to make a good film that is respectful of the source material while also standing out and being commercially viable. Video game adaptations have an even harder job, as the entire point of a video game is to offer you a storytelling experience you can’t get from going to the movies. So, it’s not really surprising that it’s taken so long to get one that’s universally liked. Really, Detective Pikachu doesn’t have the right to be as good as it is.

Its irreverence in its success makes it an absolute joy to watch

The film is full of fan-pleasing moments. The aforementioned inclusion of the anime theme song is one of many easter-eggs and references. A plethora of Pokémon (try saying that over and over) are included throughout the film, some in more prominent roles than others, and the plot also relates to the first Pokémon animated film. While fan service isn’t enough to make an adaptation good, the movie does it right. All these little moments are done with a tongue-in-cheek attitude that shows self-awareness of the property, letting the audience know that the team understand the silliness of the concept. This is one of the things that made The Lego Movie such a success, and in the same way is what makes this film a perfect family movie. It’s a bunch of fun for kids (it is certainly a kids’ film), but the self-awareness and some subtle jokes that only adults will get makes it great for the parents, or for anyone who wants to go and see it. This is something a lot of video game movies get wrong. They either make a film for the game’s audience, thus shutting it off to non-fans, or make it too universal so the fans of the games hate it. Whenever they do try and strike a balance, they fail to do so, or are plagued by other issues common to any film (the recent Tomb Raider film falls into this latter camp). While Detective Pikachu certainly tests that balance at points (a lot of the world is given very little building time and may overwhelm people unaware of the games), it ultimately succeeds, and its irreverence in its success makes it an absolute joy to watch.

We still may not have had a great video game adaptation, a proper 5-star film that we’ve seen in adaptations of other mediums like comic books, but we’ve certainly had an unabashedly good one. By making a fun film that has something for everyone, Detective Pikachu not only earned a nice amount of cash, but also its title as the first good video game movie, and that’s never going to change.

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