Does 'Detective Pikachu' Make Sense to a New 'Pokémon' Viewer?

A writer with little knowledge of the popular franchise suggests checking out Wikipedia before sitting down to a screening.
Legendary Entertainment/Screengrab
A writer with little knowledge of the popular franchise suggests checking out Wikipedia before sitting down to a screening.

[This story contains spoilers for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu]

Sometimes, a pop-culture craze just passes you by without you even realizing it. The craze that sailed by me in the late 1990s, by only a couple years, was Pokémon. I’ve always been vaguely aware of Pokémon, in that I know it’s a card game and that there have been Pokémon movies and TV shows, and that one of the main Pokémon...things is a yellow dude named Pikachu. That was my basic level of awareness in watching the brand-new, live-action adventure Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, a movie that felt decidedly alien to me from beginning to end.

By the time the first Pokémon movie was released in the United States in 1999, I was a sophomore in high school and the anime adaptation of the franchise looked like little-kid stuff to me. Frankly, before the rise of the Pokémon Go smartphone game a couple years ago, I’m not sure I knew that Pokémon was still a thing people were into. But while I never played Pokémon Go, its popularity was unavoidable. People — not just kids, as I’d originally presumed — love Pokémon, and cannot get enough of them.

I, on the other hand, still don’t entirely get what Pokémon...are. (Is? I’m not even sure if that word, Pokémon, is singular or plural. Is it both?) Detective Pikachu, which I am led to believe is based on a video game, didn’t help me at all. Going into the film, I hoped to approach it like I would an adaptation of a book I hadn’t read. I had a few vague questions about world-building, but I presumed the movie would answer them by seeding them throughout the overall story of a young man paired with a talking Pikachu to uncover the mystery of his possibly dead father. You don’t have to read the Harry Potter books to enjoy the films, and you should arguably not have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the Pokémon universe to enjoy Detective Pikachu. But as I found out, knowing a lot about Pokémon would have helped me immensely.

Detective Pikachu primarily takes place in Ryme City, a metropolis created by some billionaire played by Bill Nighy in a wheelchair. (Nighy’s character owns...everything, I guess? He has a large skyscraper and his jerk son runs a news network. I have no idea if this is canon in Pokémon.) Ryme City is apparently the only place in the world where humans and Pokémon live in harmony — in other cities in this indeterminate world, humans train Pokémon to battle other Pokémon. Ryme City’s design is so disparate that it’s hard to tell if the city is a stand-in for any real place or just a generic dystopia.

Before we see Ryme City bursting with all sorts of weird, deformed dogs, turtles, dragons, and more, the only Pokémon we see is some little gerbil-looking guy who wears a skull on his head. (Is it possible that all of these Pokémon are just the product of some Godzilla-like explosion gone wrong?) Our hero, Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), tries and fails to catch the gerbil thing in the opening before he travels to Ryme City to find out about the apparent murder of his father, a local cop. So when it’s explained that Pokémon co-exist with humans, it raised a lot of questions for me that the film all but refuses to answer: Are Pokémon just domesticated monsters? Are they able to do human tasks? Are all of them able to do human tasks, or just some of them? If Pokémon can perform human tasks, why would humans need to work at all? Do they all have a shared language?

Language is a big part of Detective Pikachu — once Tim visits his estranged dad’s apartment, he’s shocked to find Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). They’re both surprised that they can understand each other (and that no other human can understand Pikachu). Once Tim and Pikachu get over this apparently shocking communicative barrier, they team up to figure out what really happened to Tim’s dad. The fact that Tim and Pikachu understand each other is initially as inexplicable as the way humans and Pokémon are apparently able to relate to each other regularly. As Pikachu says at one point, the Pokémon can understand humans emotionally and vice versa. This kind of connection made me wonder something that may well be explained in past films or games or whatever: where...did the Pokémon come from?

There are a couple images in Detective Pikachu that suggest the Pokémon existed as far back as the Pharaohs of Egypt, but did they always just exist on Earth? Frankly, if it wasn’t for faux-hieroglyphs, or other pop-culture tie-ins, I’d wonder if Ryme City is meant to take place on Earth at all. (At one point, Pikachu says, “Serenity now,” which I guess means Seinfeld exists in the world of Pokémon? Does all other pop culture exist in this world? Is there a Deadpool movie in the world of Ryme City?)

For the Pokémon veterans out there, I’m sure the notion of including an explainer on the origins of the characters would be extremely boring. But for those of us who know Pikachu primarily as a stuffed animal, some clarity would be helpful. The events of Detective Pikachu are not entirely impenetrable — Tim and Pikachu’s investigation leads to a larger, city-wide conspiracy in the same vein as films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Zootopia, and it might just be that Reynolds wasn’t cast in this film simply for his voice — but I still felt like I was on the outside looking in.

Here’s a good example of that feeling: in the climax of Detective Pikachu, Tim and Pikachu have learned that the engineer of a major conspiracy to put human minds into Pokémon bodies is the Bill Nighy character, the guy who created Ryme City out of whole cloth. (By the way, how did he build this city? Why were Pokémon not able to live in harmony elsewhere?) Tim is trying to fight his way to the Nighy character, only to find that the primary threat is a purple-haired woman who doesn’t speak and has weirdly beady eyes. As she morphs into a duplicate of other characters we’ve seen in the film, Tim shouts in recognition, “You’re a ditto!” I’m able to grasp the basic point here — this character has the ability to shape-shift, somehow. But the blitheness with which the character is clarified feels like it only works if you know the Pokémon universe already.

If your major pop-culture blindspot is Pokémon, then Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a mostly drab way to spend 105 minutes. The movie is maddeningly unwilling to make a lot of sense to anyone who’s outside of the Pokémon world before. Detective Pikachu doesn’t have to be that straightforward, of course, but the best adaptations work for anyone, whether or not they’re familiar with the source material. With this movie, if you’re not familiar with the source material, you ought to do some Wikipedia diving before you sit down, or else you’ll be asking a lot of questions this film is not interested in answering.

  • Josh Spiegel