Detective Pikachu analysis and review (part 2 of 2)

Yesterday we talked about why I think Detective Pikachu is a good (or at least decent) movie generally – by standards that would apply more or less to any movie, like the strength of its characters and theme.  But this wouldn’t be my lunatic asylum of a Pokémon blog if I just talked about normal things; I need to talk about what makes it good specifically as a Pokémon movie, as an addition to the Pokémon franchise.  After all, it’s entirely possible to imagine a blockbuster film adaptation of a beloved fictional universe that earns decent mainstream popularity while being seen as a disappointment or even a betrayal by fans of earlier versions (ahem).  There are even Pokémon movies that I, a more or less lifelong Pokémon nerd, am frankly not wild about (to, uh… understate the case somewhat).  So from this perspective, the questions I need to put to Detective Pikachu are a bit more specific than last time: does it present Pokémon effectively to people who aren’t necessarily fans already (which is certainly one of its aims), does it expand and explore the Pokémon universe in interesting ways for those of us who are, and what is its take on themes that are already prominent concerns for Pokémon?

If you haven’t already read the first section of this review, go do that; if you have, join me now for this second half of my ludicrously deep dive on Detective Pikachu, and as always, dear reader, beware, for the internet is dark and full of spoilers, and such you shall find herein.

Something I am very glad this movie does not keep from the game is Pikachu yelling “a bolt of brilliance!” and striking a pose, usually in front of some kind of water feature, whenever he figures something out.

I already mentioned last time that I think the movie underexploits its premise – the rare ability of Tim and Pikachu, between them, to bridge the communication barrier that normally exists between humans and Pokémon.  You don’t even really need to be a Pokémon fan to get why this is interesting; you can imagine a detective story about a partnership between a kid and some kind of fuzzy animal who can talk to other animals, and there’s clearly potential there for an interesting story, because animals see all kinds of things that humans don’t.  In the context of Pokémon, though, it’s even more intriguing, because these are intelligent creatures with magical powers who can use those powers to develop niches for themselves within human society (which the Pokémon anime has a history of illustrating).  This is actually something that Detective Pikachu the game shows off really well, using Pikachu’s conversations with Pokémon in Ryme City to explore their fairly diverse perspectives on life there, as well as Pikachu’s reactions to them, so it’s a shame that the movie doesn’t show a lot of this.  I can see the argument that there just isn’t time – it’s a one-and-a-half-hour movie, and establishing plot points that would allow Pikachu to interact with other Pokémon in Ryme City in ways that actually result in meaningful progression would take a fair bit of setup.  It’s also tricky to do dialogue for multiple substantial scenes like that in a way that isn’t awkward and cringey.  The game has a lot of Pikachu asking Pokémon “oh, so you’re saying [exactly what the Pokémon just said]?” in a way that’s… well, I guess ostensibly for Tim’s benefit, but also transparently meant for the player/audience, and I kind of let that slide in the game but would have hated it in the movie.  So there’s certainly good practical reasons to hang back on this front, but again, it’s hard not to be disappointed when the movie fails to spotlight what seems like the coolest aspect of its premise.  The good news is that this is, I think, the only fault I have with Detective Pikachu on the question of whether it’s a good Pokémon movie – the things it does do, for the most part, I really like.

One of the criticisms of Pokémon movies that has become almost hackneyed at this point but is, frankly, kind of justified is that they are pretty inaccessible to anyone who isn’t already a Pokémon fan.  They do not set up what a Pokémon is, why we care what a Pokémon is, or what Pokémon do in an elegant or natural way.  This is such a problem that most of them for a long time have begun with a “world of Pokémon” montage that shows a bunch of scenes of Pokémon in nature with a voice-over by the narrator literally explaining what a Pokémon is and how the Pokémon trainer ethos fits into the world, which… like, okay, it’s better than nothing, but come on, guys; “show, don’t tell” is, like, the first rule of storytelling in a visual medium.  Detective Pikachu has the scenes of Pokémon in nature as the credits roll, but it gets rid of the intrusive, clunky narration and just lets us immerse ourselves in the beautiful scenery and get used to the CGI Pokémon.  All the actual setup is done in the scene where Tim reluctantly agrees to try to catch a Cubone, and is so much more natural that it makes previous Pokémon movies’ attempts feel comical by comparison.  From watching this scene alone and listening to the dialogue between Tim and his friend Jack (played by Karan Soni), you know that 1) Pokémon are magical creatures that live in the wilderness and are “caught” by people, 2) looking for wild Pokémon is something Tim and Jack remember doing as children, 3) there are different “types” of them, including Fire and Water, 4) people take Pokémon as their “partners” and companions, and your choice of partner is thought to say something about your personality (Cubone is perfect for Tim “because they’re both lonely”), 5) it’s unusual that Tim doesn’t have a Pokémon, and 6) although you “catch” a wild Pokémon in a Pokéball, “it has to choose you too,” and things can end badly for you if it rejects you.  All of that is important contextual information for someone who is new to Pokémon – like, say, most of the parents who will doubtless be taken to see this movie.  What’s more, none of it is intrusive, because this scene and its dialogue also set up Tim’s character arc: he’s a bit of a loner, which has Jack worried about him, and he resents Pokémon for some reason.

This is already a better goddamn scene than almost anything I’ve ever seen in a Pokémon movie, and it comes before the plot even starts.

The same thing happens with Tim’s train journey to Ryme City, when he watches an informational video directed at tourists visiting the city for the first time.  For Tim, and for veterans of the Pokémon franchise, this video sets up the fact that Ryme City is an anomaly in the Pokémon world – a place where there are no Pokémon battles, and where humans and Pokémon ostensibly live and work as equals.  For people unfamiliar with Pokémon, it explains that Pokémon battles are a thing, and essentially treated as this world’s number one competitive sport.  The context provided by the video, combined with Tim’s reactions to arriving in Ryme City, also give the audience “permission” to be as astounded and overwhelmed by the human/Pokémon metropolis as he is.  When Ryme City finally appears on screen, we understand that this is meant to be an amazing place even within the context of the movie’s universe.  Pokémon evolution is dropped in very neatly too.  It’s an important plot point that the film’s villain, Howard Clifford, is obsessed with evolution, and that gets set up when Tim meets him in his office and sees him evolve an Eevee into a Flareon.  Even before that point, though, the audience already has some idea what Pokémon evolution is, because we’ve seen Pikachu try to fight off a berserk Charizard in the pit fight scene by forcing a Magikarp to evolve into Gyarados – arguably the most dramatic example of the phenomenon that exists.

What’s really strange to me is that I’ve seen a lot of reviews to the effect that “this movie doesn’t explain anything” or “if you don’t like Pokémon already it’s incomprehensible,” and… well, obviously I can’t speak for people who have zero experience of Pokémon; that’s a perspective on the film that I can never fully appreciate.  Maybe if you know nothing about Pokémon, those opening scenes are just completely baffling and don’t help you at all.  But frankly it’s a big ask to take someone from zero to Pokémaniac in 10 minutes of screen time without derailing the actual plot of your movie, and Detective Pikachu takes, in my opinion, a damn good stab at it.  Honestly, it feels to me like reviewers just saw what they expected to see, on the basis of what Pokémon movies have always been in the past: a film that offers, at best, lip service to the goal of easing viewers into the impenetrable morass of dumb nerd $#!t that I’ve been breathing for the last 20 years.  Compared to other Pokémon media, this movie is at least trying to be much more friendly to people who are new to the franchise, without being ham-fisted about it or making the experience drag for people who, like me, do know Pokémon.

I can’t find any stills from the tourism infomercial itself, so here’s Lickitung showing off its “very generous tongue” to Tim in the same scene.

Also, just as long as that tourism video is on our minds, I want to briefly point out that it shows (as part of its five-second history of Pokémon training) an Egyptian-style wall painting featuring several Pokémon, as well as a cave painting that seems to depict a human throwing a circular red-and-white object towards a Pokémon.  As an actual real-life archaeologist who is also a Pokémon nerd, I love this, just as I love practically every reference Pokémon makes to the ancient past.  However, the apparent depiction of a primitive Pokéball in what seems to be the 20,000-ish region BC (I mean, I’m not an Upper Palaeolithic guy and I don’t know different styles of cave art, but they’re clearly going for something Stone Age-y) does slightly raise my eyebrows.  Now, this could just be an in-universe equivalent of, say, that one Hellenistic funerary stele that appears to show a girl holding a laptop – the painting actually just depicts a shiny rock or something, but people noticed it looks like a Pokéball and Howard Clifford’s dumbass PR team ran with it because it was cool and fit the theme of their video.  Then again, although mass-produced Pokéballs are supposed to be a comparatively recent invention, I don’t think we’ve ever been told how far back their all-natural artisanal precursors, Apricorns, are supposed to go, so maybe this really is, like, “the first Pokéball.”  In any case, in the context of what the movie is actually doing with this promotional video, those shots serve an important purpose (both for us, and for in-universe viewers like Tim).  They establish and emphasise the antiquity of Pokémon-trainer relationships, and the foundational place they have in this world’s society and culture – stressing what a radical thing Ryme City is actually doing.

Ryme City is explicitly a special place in the Pokémon world because of the unique dynamic of how Pokémon fit into its society.  Pokémon spinoff games have explored the idea of regions where humans and Pokémon live together in different ways – most notably in the Ranger series, where regions like Fiore have no trainers, no Pokéballs, no battles, and Rangers who form temporary relationships with wild Pokémon.  The urban setting of Ryme City is a new twist on that, though, as is the “corporate utopia” façade it tries to present: it is a designed community, the product not of government planning or of organic growth, but of the singular vision of the head a powerful company, whose ideals the city is supposed to reflect.  The dense background scenes of Ryme City also show us a lot of snippets of those diverse and extraordinary Pokémon lives that I was talking about earlier – the Pokémon don’t get to factor into the detective story or speak for themselves, but we do see them living and working among humans, making use of their varied powers as they do so.  We also see within the movie itself that Ryme City’s vision is not as perfect as the tourism infomercials show.  Pokémon battles exist, all right – they’ve just been driven underground, and the same venues are also an impromptu laboratory for illicit testing of the dangerous R-gas.  This lets the movie gesture to the ethical cloud that has always hung over Pokémon and escape the worst potential for that kind of criticism, but still let the fans see a Charizard in action.

At the same time, Detective Pikachu has elements of a fairly standard take on the ethics of Pokémon training.  There’s that line from the opening sequence about how the Pokémon has to choose the trainer, and the constant reference to Pokémon as “partners.”   The Charizard we meet in the “fight club” actually seems to relish battles and have its own motives for fighting in them, and its trainer – though clearly an unsympathetic character in other respects – is protective of the Pokémon he calls “his baby.”  There are even Pokémon watching from the spectator stands, apparently just as eagerly as the humans.  And, of course, we learn that Harry and his Pikachu are extremely proficient at Pokémon battles, despite being law enforcers in a city that ostensibly outlaws them – because being good at Pokémon battles is a standard heroic trait in this world.  Nonetheless, the construction of the scenes in the “fight club” (and Tim’s surprise at finding battles in Ryme City at all) are pretty clearly meant to make us see this as a sleazy underbelly that casts an unflattering light on the city’s ostensibly utopian vision.  You can outlaw Pokémon battles, but they’re simply too much of a cultural fixture to be stamped out.  Considering who turns out to be behind the R-gas, it’s possible the city’s sinister powers-that-be don’t even care all that much.  If a Pokémon movie wants to reach people who aren’t already 100% bought into the basic premises of what Pokémon is, a fairly nuanced take on, and presentation of, Pokémon battles is kind of a necessity, and I don’t know if Detective Pikachu is quite there yet, but it seems to at least be aware of the problem.

Out of the frying pan, and into Charizard’s mouth.

Now I want to talk about Howard Clifford’s villainous scheme.  Before doing that, though, I have to say this: I was just talking about disabled characters (or their absence) in Pokémon a couple of months ago, and I’m honestly not super-thrilled with the franchise’s first (to my knowledge) major physically disabled character being a villain whose motivation, and the nature of his plot, are heavily influenced by his disability.  I don’t think it’s really my place to speak for people with paraplegia, and I’m not going to try to, but it was something that stuck out to me as… y’know, potentially #problematic, and something I would like any future live action Pokémon movies to maybe think a little more carefully about.

Howard Clifford evolves an Eevee in his office. Note the statues of Dialga, Palkia and Arceus – symbols of the way Pokémon make up the foundations of the world.

Having said that, the nature of Howard’s plot strikes me as something that presents an interesting perspective on the nature of the Pokémon world, and can be understood as growing out of things we’ve always known about it (which, to me, is good use of the setting).  Howard is obsessed with evolution: the power of some Pokémon to transform themselves and grow bigger, faster, stronger, smarter, even develop entirely new magical abilities.  “Imagine,” he tells Tim at their first meeting, just after using a Fire Stone to evolve an Eevee, “being able to evolve into the best possible version of yourself.”  I think it’s also relevant here that Howard’s Pokémon partner is a Ditto – who can’t evolve, but nonetheless has the greatest mastery over the power of transformation that Howard envies (and even uses it to become human, blurring the dividing line between humans and Pokémon).  Ultimately the “evolutions” we see are physical ones, which Howard envisions as a “cure” – not just for his paraplegia, but for all the physical ills of all humanity.  From that line about becoming “the best possible version of yourself,” though, it seems like physical change is not the sum total of what he has in mind – he envisions evolution as a process of meeting one’s potential, or at least removing the barriers that stand in the way of meeting it.  The Pokémon anime has been using evolution as a metaphor for personal growth basically forever (and here I’m just going to take the opportunity to plug some of my old anime commentaries), so Howard isn’t even thinking in particularly radical terms here.  Pokémon evolve not just because they reach a certain age or “level,” but because of psychological readiness, and as an outward manifestation of inner growth.  The arguable exception, of course, which the anime sometimes treats as an “easy way out,” is evolving a Pokémon using a magical evolutionary stone – exactly as we see Howard doing.  There are other good reasons for this scene to feature Flareon, of course, and it would be bizarre and extreme (not to mention unfair to players of the games) to suggest that no one should ever use stones to evolve an Eevee, but I think it would be interesting to read the scene as saying that Howard has missed the point.  He sees evolution as a short-cut, a way for Pokémon to grow as “people” and achieve their potential basically through magic, which is denied to humans – when in reality, evolution is more often a symbol of the hard work of personal growth.

With the exception of OG Team Rocket, villains from the main series of Pokémon games tend to have, at their core, some idea or motivation that is actually altruistic, but becomes twisted when they take it to its illogical extreme and refuse all compromise: Archie and Maxie, Cyrus, N, Lysandre, arguably Lusamine, they all believe they’re visionaries who are making a better world, which justifies the use of force against anyone who gets in the way.  Howard Clifford in Detective Pikachu does this with one of Pokémon’s fundamental and unquestionable premises: that humans and Pokémon are meant to be partners and can achieve great things together.  As far as anyone else knows, Ryme City is the realisation of his vision: a place where humans and Pokémon live together more closely and equally than anywhere else in the world.  In fact, it turns out that he intends to fuse the greatest strengths of humans and Pokémon together – human minds, with the power of Pokémon to transcend the limitations of their bodies.  To look at it another way, it’s an extension of the darkest possible interpretation of Pokémon training and Pokémon battling – the bodies of Pokémon as tools for humans, the accusation that Pokémon’s heroic characters have always levelled at its worst villains… and that Pokémon’s real-world critics have always levelled at the series itself.  I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but there is – whether the resemblance is intentional or not – something very Get Out-ish about the body-stealing of Howard’s plan.  The parallels are hard not to draw: a group that has been historically oppressed through the ownership of their bodies, now having their bodies literally stolen by their privileged oppressors.  There is a dark side to Pokémon training, and while I tend to feel that straight-up criticisms of Pokémon are often a bit on the hackneyed side and don’t show a lot of familiarity with the material, Pokémon stories that actually acknowledge and play with those same issues (whether that’s fan fiction or official media, like the plot of Black and White) are in my opinion the most interesting ones.

(Note the absence of Howard’s neural headset, since this shot of Mewtwo is from the trailer, which left the headset off to avoid spoiling the twist)

This is actually something where the presence of Mewtwo is kind of a big deal, especially because this is implied to be the same Mewtwo from the very first Pokémon movie, who broke out of containment in Kanto twenty years before the events of Detective Pikachu and then disappeared.  And that Mewtwo hates humans – as it reminds us, continuing to tell Tim that “humanity is evil,” even though it now readily concedes that there are some humans who are honourable.  Back in that first movie, Mewtwo wanted to upend the established order too – I mean, it wanted to do it by destroying all humans and all Pokémon loyal to them, whereas Ryme City ostensibly just wants to experiment with some innovations in urban planning and social engineering, but… y’know, six of one, twelve gross of the other, right?  The relationship between humans and nature has always been a core theme of Pokémon, and to some extent you can sort of read any Pokémon story as being about that, even one that doesn’t deliberately push the theme: Ryme City is an attempt to restore harmony between nature and humanity in a world of human overreach, as an alternative to (as Mewtwo might have had it) nature simply destroying humanity.  Call me crazy, but I think there is a certain amount of applicability to the real world to be found in a setting like this.  Detective Pikachu also has, naturally, an “arrogance of scientists” subplot when Tim and Lucy investigate the ruins of PCL and learn about the experiments that were being performed on Pokémon evolution there.  This is a theme that Mewtwo tends to carry with it wherever it goes, by virtue of its backstory as a genetically engineered monster. Normally it’s counterbalanced by the fact that Pokémon actually loves science and technology, but this is masked by the movie’s noir aesthetic, and the absence of iconic tech like Pokéballs from Ryme City. I bring these things up not because they’re major themes of Detective Pikachu itself or because Mewtwo’s past is particularly dwelt on (they aren’t, and it isn’t) but because I think there is room in the Pokémon world for stories that challenge its most basic premises – and maybe even for stories that ultimately reject them. Howard Clifford subverts a moral commandment that Pokémon takes for granted and turns it into something terrifying and dystopian. If Detective Pikachu is only the first of several live action Pokémon films, and future ones also prove willing to flirt with the dark side (while keeping the balance with Pokémon’s lighthearted soul), then that’s a future I want to be around for.

Detective Pikachu is not by any means a perfect movie, but it works, both as a fun family action-comedy with spectacular visuals, a coherent theme and a nice message, and as an addition to the Pokémon world that plays with some of its core themes in interesting ways.  Although this is not yet Pokémon’s masterpiece, it really makes me feel that more and better things are possible for Pokémon’s storytelling in the future, whether in the form of direct sequels or unrelated stories that tackle different themes with new characters.  Honestly I hope they don’t do a direct sequel (this one was wrapped up pretty nicely; just let Tim and Harry be happy, you monsters) but, y’know, of course they bloody will; it’s Hollywood. If you haven’t seen it yet… well, first of all, why are you even reading this, but you absolutely should.  If you have a friend you want to introduce to Pokémon (or reintroduce, after a few years away) do it with this. And yeah, in some ways I’m biased – of course I like the first ever live action Pokémon movie; I’m a Pokémon nut – but I like to think this blog constitutes something of a track record of being willing to criticise the things I like, and if this were legitimately a terrible movie, I would absolutely tear it a new one just to get vengeance for breaking my heart. Flaws and all, this is definitely an addition to the “love” side of my love-hate relationship with Pokémon.

4 thoughts on “Detective Pikachu analysis and review (part 2 of 2)

  1. So, fishpaste. Apparently it’s your “default” category until you add any others. Is there a story behind that?

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    1. No story – I just like the word “fishpaste.” It makes me chuckle for some reason. Actually it has just been “Pokémon” in the past, and probably will be again at certain points, but sometimes I change it so I can delete the old default category and get rid of it from everything that has a proper one. I think there’s about 700 old posts left now (out of 2200-odd total) that still don’t have a real WordPress category.

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      1. “Shenanigans” is a better word in my opinion. Especially since actual shenanigans are as much fun as saying the word.

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  2. What I love the most about this movie is that they got a freaking Ryan Reynolds to voice Pikachu. This singular fact alone made this movie about 200 percent better.

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