Detective Pikachu Is Not A Pokemon Movie
Like many video game movies, Detective Pikachu abandons the source material to tell a paint-by-numbers story that doesn’t fit the world of Pokemon.
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Welcome back to Pokemon Movies in Review, a weekly recap of the entire Pokemon cinematic universe. This week we’re taking a detour from the animated series to re-examine 2019’s Detective Pikachu, the first-ever live-action Pokemon movie and the first produced outside of Japan. Detective Pikachu follows the time (dis)honored video game movie tradition of bastardizing the source material in an effort to appeal to a wider audience. Reasoning that fans will show up either way, movies like Super Mario Bros., Resident Evil, Monster Hunter, and Sonic the Hedgehog have all abandoned the stories and characters of the worlds they’re based on. Detective Pikachu left a bad taste in my mouth when I first watched it, and upon a second viewing my distaste for it has only increased. Regardless of whether or not you enjoy the movie, there’s no denying that Detective Pikachu is a poor representation of the world of Pokemon.
Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) is a down-and-out insurance agent in his 20s who once dreamed of being a Pokemon trainer. While Tim’s backstory is only vaguely referenced, we can surmise that the death of his mother at a young age led to a strained relationship with his father, which also steered Tim away from being a Pokemon trainer. Tim loses his interest in Pokemon until he learns of the death of his father, Harry. He travels to Ryme City where he meets a talking Pikachu with amnesia (Ryan Reynolds) who is investigating Harry’s death, and the two set off an adventure to uncover the truth of a grand Pokemon conspiracy.
Almost immediately, it’s clear that the world of Detective Pikachu is unlike the ‘real’ Pokemon universe in many ways. Ryme City, where the bulk of the film takes place, is described as a paradise where humans and Pokemon can live side by side, and it’s the antithesis of everything Pokemon is. There are no battles, no trainers, no Poke Balls – just “a stronger, more harmonious world.” Ryme City is a progressive utopia that declares our traditional relationship with Pokemon is problematic. Detective Pikachu begins by explaining that in a civilized society, you wouldn’t catch, train, collect, battle, and trade Pokemon. Welcome to the first-ever Hollywood Pokemon movie, everything you know about Pokemon is wrong, actually.
Detective Pikachu does not actually take place in the Pokemon universe. While one could imagine a place like Ryme City existing in the games or anime, it’s impossible to ignore all of the ways that the movie diverges from the world of Pokemon that we know. Tim is an insurance agent, a career that’s hard to imagine fitting into the idyllic, problem-free world of Pokemon. As far as I know, there’s only three jobs you can have in Pokemon: professor, nurse, and gym leader. You can also be a cop, but you just stand around all day challenging kids to fight your Growlithe. Of course, there are no gym leaders in Ryme City since there are no gyms. Every step of the way through this movie we’re confronted by dialogue and details that don’t fit with the style or world of Pokemon at all.
When Tim meets Pikachu he accidentally exposes a group of Aipom to a rage-inducing gas called ‘R’. Tim runs outside to warn people about the violent Aipom, screaming about the “stuff he put up his nose” which gets him some weird looks, because I guess cocaine exists in the world of Pokemon now. Pikachu, who we eventually discover is Tim’s dad in a Pikachu’s body (more on that later), is rather crass and makes jokes that wouldn’t fit into any other Pokemon story – game, movie, or otherwise. He tells Tim to man up and “grow some berries”, and says people are always trying to “pet me, kiss me, or stick a finger in me.” He jokes about releasing a silent but deadly fart. He jokes about climate change deniers. I don’t find any of Detective Pikachu’s edgy humor offensive to my sensibilities, but I’m certainly offended as a Pokemon fan. It’s as if the movie takes place in the real world and there just happens to be Pokemon in it. Rarely, if ever, does Detective Pikachu feel like a movie about the world of Pokemon.
There are things the movie gets wrong or changes from the source material for the sake of a joke or plot point. Tim and Pikachu meet a Mr. Mime who is apparently Harry’s informant – though its role in the story is never really explained. The Mr. Mime is a Mime by its most literal definition, which is pretty strange to see considering I have the voice of Ash’s mom’s Mr. Mime seared in my memory. To extort the information they needed from Mr. Mime, Pikachu pantomimes dousing it with gasoline and burning it with a lit match. Later, when Pikachu is attacked by genetically enhanced Greninja – another bizarre creation for the movie – Tim begs a wild Bulbasaur for help, but Lucy (Kathryn Newton), Tim’s love interest, tells him that the Bulbasaur can’t understand what he’s saying. Not only does Lucy gender Bulbasaur by calling it ‘he’, which characters never do in Pokemon (always ‘it’), what she says doesn’t make any sense. Pokemon can understand people. They don’t suddenly learn English when you catch them. I don’t know why the movie insists on subverting everything we know about Pokemon, but as a fan I find it infuriating.
The plot of Detective Pikachu is fairly nonsensical. Harry discovered that the founder of Ryme City, Howard Clifford, was experimenting on Mewtwo and harvesting R from it in order to enrage Pokemon so that he could transfer human minds into their bodies… or something. Harry rescues Mewtwo but is attacked by Clifford’s genetically-enhanced Greninja who runs his car off the road. Mewtwo rescues Harry but has to put his mind into Pikachu’s body, I guess, to save him, which gives him amnesia, for reasons. Tim can understand Harry/Pikachu because he is his son, I think, but doesn’t recognize his dad’s voice. The two don’t discover Clifford’s plan to merge all of the people and Pokemon in Ryme city until the villain explains it to them, so they don’t turn out to be very good detectives. Or very good Pikachus. Luckily, Harry and Tim are able to defeat Clifford in Mewtwo’s body when Harry uses Pikachu’s strongest move, Volt Tackle, which he wasn’t able to do earlier in the film, for some reason. Also Clifford’s assistant is a genetically modified Ditto that can turn into people and super-powered Pokemon.
As the people are all merged with their partner Pokemon throughout Ryme City, none of them have amnesia like Harry did and they also can’t speak. When Tim and Harry separate Clifford from Mewtwo, Mewtwo explains that Pikachu offered its body to save Harry’s mind after the car crash. In a flashback, it tells Pikachu “There is a son. With the son’s return, I can repair the father.” What? Why? And also, how? Everything works out in the end, Harry is “repaired” and his relationship with Tim finds a new beginning, but it’s all put together haphazardly and without any respect for the Pokemon franchise, its history, or its themes.
Detective Pikachu is a huge waste of Pokemon’s potential. It’s full of fan-service and I can see why, given the lack of competition, it was heralded as the greatest video game movie ever made (at least until Sonic the Hedgehog, which has a lot of the same problems). I loved seeing some of my favorite Pokemon in real life, and there were moments, like the Charizard battle, that I really enjoyed – but it’s not the Pokemon movie I wanted.
I want a Pokemon movie about gym battles and eager young trainers that discover their strength through their bond with Pokemon. I want a Pokemon movie about Team Rocket and the heroes that thwart their evil schemes of world domination with the power of friendship. I want to see Nurse Joy, Officer Jenny, Cynthia, and ya, I want to see Ash Ketchum. I never wanted a movie about a guy who gets turned into a Pikachu and makes fart jokes, and I don’t think any Pokemon fan did either.
Next week we return to the world of animation with Mewtwo Strikes Back—Evolution, a faithful remake of the original Pokemon Movie. Hopefully it will help me forget what a mess Detective Pikachu turned out to be.
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