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Detective Pikachu artwork Source images: Warner Bros. Pictures | Illustration: James Bareham/Polygon

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Detective Pikachu does justice to Pokémon

The world of Pokémon comes alive

Like many kids growing up in the ’90s, I fell under the pixelated spell of the Game Boy. With the click of a cartridge, a fantasy about traveling the world with monster buddies came alive. As the years went by, each new Pokémon game gave that fandom a pulse, but it wasn’t until I saw the new movie Detective Pikachu that I realized just how limited the fantasy truly was.

In the main Pokémon games, your journey always plays out the same, more or less. You are a youngster on the verge of adulthood. To show the world you are ready to grow up, you pick a “starter” Pokémon to accompany you on your adventures. This critter can grow and evolve through battles, which you take up against friends and strangers alike. Once you’re strong enough, you take on leaders who can award you with emblems of your success. At the end of it, you are a champion with a small legion of Pokémon to your name.

While I spent most of my time in turn-based battles, the thing that kept me coming back to Pokémon existed in the margins. Every so often, I’d see a couple of Pokémon in the towns, taking up simple jobs. I’d read about the twisted and fascinating things Pokémon do in the Pokédex, and imagined a culture defined by its coexistence with monsters. Over and over, Pokémon kept telling me that its society revolved around monsters, but beyond the battles, I couldn’t fully see it. The towns were too small, the scope too limited. In the same way friendships aren’t all about wild partying, and relationships aren’t all about explosive sex, Pokémon’s realness can’t hinge solely within the action. Enter Detective Pikachu.

[Ed. note: This article contains mild spoilers for Detective Pikachu.]

detective pikachu and his pals fall back on the ground in shock after a bunch of pokemon explode out of the ground Warner Bros. Pictures

Detective Pikachu follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), a teenager who, unlike most of his peers, doesn’t actually own a Pokémon. Here we arrive at the first juicy bit of world-building: We all know you’re “supposed” to get a Pokémon at a certain age, but in the games, that’s always a given. We don’t get to see the social pressures that make that custom so deeply ingrained. So when Tim’s friend has to trick him into capturing a Pokémon, we immediately understand that something about Tim is kind of off. Why wouldn’t he want a Pokémon? What’s wrong with him?

Tim feels comfortable in his alienation, but that changes quickly after he learns about the death of his father. Forced to deal with the aftermath, Tim goes into Ryme City to sort through his father’s belongings. That moment when Tim first steps into Ryme City is astounding. Everywhere I looked, the hustle and bustle of the city teased the many ways that Pokémon live in unity with humans.

Machamp work as traffic cops, gesturing vehicles around the massive Snorlax lying in the middle of the street. Pidgey stand tall atop power lines, while Rattata scurry across the pavement. Squirtle trail behind firefighters, while Charmander help vendors cook food. I gasped. I squealed. I’ve been playing Pokémon for years, but the franchise has never felt as alive as it does in Detective Pikachu, because the film’s scope is unprecedented. Even minor details, like posters, billboards, and ship signs, all hint at the ways humans and Pokémon come together. Perhaps it’s easy to feel this way, coming in as a fan — the movie is jam-packed with subtle Easter eggs that you’ll only understand if you’ve played the games or watched the anime.

Tim ends up bumping into Pikachu, an electric rodent who, for some reason, is able to actually speak words that only Tim can understand. Pikachu informs Tim that he used to be his father’s partner, and that he believes trickery is afoot. Tim’s dad isn’t dead, Pikachu claims. And so while Tim hates the idea of teaming up with a Pokémon — he’s avoided it this entire time for a reason — he reluctantly pairs up with Pikachu to settle the case.

detective pikachu - snubbull Warner Bros. Pictures

The dynamic between the two is fraught, but in a lighthearted way. Tim just wants to find out what happened, and Pikachu is a means to an end. Pikachu, meanwhile, is a spunky little shit who can best be described as ... well, Ryan Reynolds, the voice actor. The entire time I was watching the movie, I never felt as if Pikachu was its own distinct character. Instead, Pikachu always came across as a more PG-rated Ryan Reynolds, constant quips and all. As someone who finds Reynolds’ humor hit or miss, I felt Pikachu’s characterization was jarring — it always seemed like he was trying very hard to make the audience laugh.

I found Reynolds’ antics easy to overlook, however, because Detective Pikachu’s greatest strength isn’t in the story, plot, or acting. It’s a children’s movie where there are good guys, and there are bad guys. If you’ve watched the trailer, you’ve probably already guessed the entire narrative arc of the movie, though that likely won’t impact your enjoyment of the film at all.

The thing that kept me hooked throughout the movie was seeing how it depicted Pokémon. While initially I found the Pokémon designs uncanny in their attempts at realism, seeing them in motion sold me entirely. Cute Pokémon are a given; Pikachu is the poster boy of the movie, after all. But to see a Charizard spread its massive wings, or to behold a Ditto changing forms, or a Lickitung engulfing someone in saliva — to see the individual scales and fur, to see the burns and residue and gravity that come with taming actual monsters — that is pure awe.

That awe can be exciting and explosive in the thick of battle, but more often than not, it’s quiet and mundane, like having to strap your Pikachu into a car’s booster seat. The biggest compliment I can give Detective Pikachu is that it didn’t take long for me to wish I could live in it.

Detective Pikachu premieres May 10 in theaters.