The devil is in the details, they say, or maybe that should be the Giratina is in the details, if you’re a Pokémon fan and consider Tina to be the devil Pokémon (it’s not really, though). While Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is too often light on coherent plot details, the film is rife with small world development details and production value touches that make for a convincing Pokémon world come to life. Avoiding spoilers (at least without warning) and the obvious, here are some observations and analysis of how Detective Pikachu achieved its universal appeal while still capturing the heart of the franchise.
The Pokémon *Very Slight Spoilers*
Obviously people are coming to Detective Pikachu for the Pokémon and staying for the Reynolds or vice versa, however, multiple minute touches concerning the former help develop the world and setting without the exposition the plot relies so heavily upon. Ryme City, the primary setting, is a place where people and Pokémon live in harmony, meaning no Poké Balls or battles. Given that context, most citizens’ partner Pokémon (the literal dozens of Charmanders, Squirtles, and Treeckos and not Bulbasaurs…I guess to match the bipedal reptile thing?) are logically unevolved having never battled and grown as Pokémon. Conversely, the Pokémon featured in the fighting ring sequence were mostly fully evolved, an easily overlooked attention to detail that gives weight to Ryme City’s core concept and helps establish the rules of the world without a word of dialogue.
Speaking to the repetition of the Pokémon seen, even this assists in the subtle crafting of the film’s world. More likely done to save money by recycling models or to highlight very specific, very recognizable monsters (note that Charizard, Greninja, Mewtwo, and the original starters all make an appearance), Detective Pikachu only features some fifty-four or so creatures according to the films director, Rob Letterman, less than ten percent of the total creature count. However, since Ryme City isn’t a town for trainers, and the citizens aren’t traveling “across the land, searching far and wide” for new Pokémon, it stands to reason the ones present are likely from the immediate, surrounding area. Take for instance the Cubone near the beginning and throughout the movie, or the Joltiks first seen climbing the power lines and later featured as people’s partners. Meanwhile, the Pokémon who naturally inhabit the restricted research space, Bulbasaur, Morelull, and Flabébé, are featured almost exclusively within that space since the average, gate abiding citizen wouldn’t have the opportunity to encounter them. Intentional or not, there’s thematic purpose to restricting the quantity of Pokémon featured in the film making it not unlike a specific town in game being inhabited by Pokémon from the surrounding routes.
The way to obtain the widest audience is to appeal to the largest market. For Detective Pikachu, that means appealing to non-fans, lapsed fans, and the mobile market. The movie may be full of easter eggs only eagle-eyed Pokénthusiasts will catch, but Detective Pikachu intentionally highlights Pokémon from the peak of the Pokémon pop culture craze from the late 90s, a similar, nostalgic recipe that made Pokémon GO such a resounding success out of the gate, ensuring even the most casual fan and lapsed twenty-to-thirty-somethings will have something to relate back to. Even more prevalent now courtesy of the reconceptualization of Red and Blue in the form of Pokémon Let’s Go, Pikachu! and Eevee, this isn’t the first or last time the Pokémon Company have utilized the original 151 and nostalgia in their masterful strokes of cross-promotion. While there are plenty of creatures from across the entirety of the franchise, by limiting the sources for inspiration and taking a broader approach, avoiding the typical trainer narrative, even audiences entirely unfamiliar with the property are more likely to engage with the film undeterred by an over-reliance on franchise history and over twenty years worth of game mechanics and monsters.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t briefly explain the games’ core conceit of capturing and training monsters. Interesting to note that the method used to capture a Pokémon isn’t through battling, whittling the wanted creature’s energy down, and only then throwing a Poké Ball, but something more akin to Pokémon GO or the aforementioned Let’s Go where balls are simply thrown at Pokémon from the outset. This simplified approach has the double benefit of being approachable for the uninitiated and immediately relatable to the broad player base of the cultural phenomenon that was and is Pokémon GO. While I certainly hope for a more mechanic and monster heavy movie in the feature, it’s perhaps wisest to wet audiences appetites first and allow them to test the waters the safest way possible, with an electric Pokémon like Pikachu.
While protagonists Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) and Detective Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) might not fit the typical pocket monster character mold, other characters could have been torn directly from a Pokémon title’s code. Reporter Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton) for example, might not get the same depth of character and development as the two leads, however, she does bring all of the youthful exuberance and humor of a typical Pokémon character to the table. Corny, chatty, naive, overly friendly and helpful, Lucy exemplifies the protagonist’s friends’ personalities in almost any core series Pokémon game. Boasting a cap, backpack, primary-colored jacket, and Pokémon partner, she’s even dressed in all the trappings of typical Pokémon trainer.
Conversely, the DJ character is impossible not to compare to Team Skull or Rocket grunts, or any antagonistic thug character for that matter, in the campy way the character was delivered. While these characters, the villain, and several others might not have come off as well rounded, realistic, and helped ground the Pokémon world, they’re certainly reminiscent of some of the core games’ characters and help bridge the gap between the game and cinematic world.
The Route Forward *Slight Spoilers*
Whether all of these different details were derived to fit Detective Pikachu comfortably into the rest of the franchise while others aimed to capture a more allusive audience, one thing remains clear: with how appealing and successful the end product was, it’s more than likely Legendary, WB, and the Pokémon Company will develop more Pokémon movies. Could we have another cinematic universe on our hands, perhaps labeled “The Pokémon World” as suggested by the Pokémon Company’s cinematic logo? Or did the company develop its attractive logo solely for its live-action, cinematic debut? Was all the effort of adapting multiple pocket monsters really just for one movie? Probably not, but that does beg the question: what is the route forward for the Pokémon cinematic universe?
A sequel isn’t out of the question, but with how well the film resolved itself, it seems more likely that the route forwards is backwards. Perhaps there only to contextualize the events of this film within pre-existing events, there was a line of dialogue alluding to Kanto twenty years prior and the creation of Mewtwo, ie. the events of Pokémon Red and Blue that could be an indication of where the next film is headed. This seems like the ideal course allowing the filmmakers to depict more battles, Pokémon, and erase some of the inane abilities of certain Pokémon demonstrated in Detective Pikachu. Alas, I don’t know the move Future Sight, so, for now, I’ll have to content myself to wait and watch. I recommend you do the same. Pokémon Detective Pikachu might not be a masterpiece, but it has something for everyone, especially the fan that wants to see a Pokémon world come to life like never before.