This month saw the release of Detective Pikachu, the Pokémon franchise’s first foray into live-action cinema. The first Pokémon film to have been distributed by Warner Bros. since the English dub of the third film back in April 2001, Detective Pikachu has already broken box office records for video game adaptations, and become the most critically lauded video game adaptation to date.
However, box office takings and film reviews do not necessarily mean that it will appease fans of the franchise, and whether or not the film can is precisely what I am going to discuss here. Having been a huge fan of both the games and anime for 20 years now, the perspective of a fan who wants to be appeased is precisely the perspective with which I entered that Saturday evening screening. With that perspective in mind, these are some of my observations of what the film got right and wrong.
The film opens with a Mewtwo (who is enraged with humanity) breaking out of a scientific research laboratory, leaving destruction in its wake, and that in itself sets a high bar where fan service is concerned. How? Because this scene is a homage to the prologue of Pokémon: The First Movie, which could not have been timed better, given that this year marks 20 years since that film’s English dub was released. Within Detective Pikachu’s first five minutes, one of the most iconic and nostalgic pieces of the Pokémon franchise has already been paid tribute to and, as a long-term Pokémon fan, that built up real anticipation for the rest of the film.
From here, the film goes to its main setting – Ryme City, where Pokémon and humans live in harmony and cooperation. While it may not be part of a region from the main game series, Ryme City is the perfect place for long-term fans of the franchise as Pokémon from all seven Generations live there.
A key reason for why many long-term fans disliked Black and White is that Unova had Generation V Pokémon only until the very end of the game, whereas long-term fans wanted to be able to capture and battle Pokémon from previous Generations too, and continue to want that with each new Generation of games. There are also Easter Eggs to the Kanto, Johto, Hoenn and Sinnoh regions in Mewtwo’s backstory and Tim’s bedroom, while box art Legendary Pokémon from previous games can been on posters in Tim’s bedroom.
While a setting that will appease Pokémon fans is important, that alone is not why Pokémon fans would want to see Detective Pikachu, as the franchise’s popularity has always primarily come down to the Pocket Monsters themselves. Every Pokémon fan remembers when they had to choose a Starter for the first time (I went with Squirtle, FYI), and the joy of the games comes from growing in skill as a trainer, with your team by your side.
When watching the anime we do cheer for Ash and his friends as they take on challenges and battles, but we cheer more when their Pokémon grow in strength and confidence, when they deliver that decisive move that wins a battle, and when they evolve. So, will cinema’s first ever live-action depiction of the franchise’s titular creatures appease long-term fans?
On the whole, I am pleased to say that the answer is yes, and a lot of that comes down to the smaller details, the little Easter Eggs, some of which are very blink-and-miss. On a general note, these CGI Pokémon are created very well by the animators. Many of them have fur, just like they do in the games and anime, and the on-screen fur has good texture to it, far more than can be achieved with the hand-drawn art of the anime.
The fact that there is fur is pleasing, as the fur of Pokémon has been referred to a fair bit over the anime’s run – Ash’s Pikachu regularly has his fur stroked and complimented, while Brock used to regularly groom his Vulpix’s fur. Speaking of Pikachu, the titular Detective Pikachu regularly rides on Tim’s shoulder, just like Ash’s Pikachu; while Lucy Stevens’s Psyduck is shown to have alarming abilities once its headache is severe enough, just like Misty’s Psyduck did.
Some of the Easter Eggs are more overt, such as Police Officers having Growlithe as their partners, a microphone-wielding Jigglypuff singing a man to sleep, and a team of Squirtle working as firefighters (a pleasing nod to the Squirtle Squad). Some are quite clever – notably having Noctowl (the Owl Pokémon) on the neon sign for an Espresso bar.
One of the most niche ones though is the eyes of Howard Clifford’s Ditto not changing when it transforms – a nod to character of the day Duplica’s Ditto from Season 1. Pokémon battles are not prominently featured, but to a long-term fan it is still exciting to see a Charizard battle, and to see a Magikarp evolve into an enraged Gyarados, while various Greninja using Water Shuriken is a nice little nod to the frequent sight of Ash’s Greninja using the same move in the anime’s XYZ arc.
The Easter Eggs are pleasing to see and register as a long-term Pokémon fan (although none quite so much so as the audio references to the anime’s original theme song). However, there are still two things which Detective Pikachu clearly gets wrong in its depiction of Pokémon.
The first is that several Pokémon (most notably Bulbasaur) cannot say their own name, like they do in the anime, which is impossible to miss and not be a little annoyed by as an anime fan. The second is that Espresso bar waiter Ludicolo seems quite forlorn, despite being the jolliest Pokémon ever in both the games and anime. Nevertheless, that is not enough to change the fact that the filmmakers did do an altogether very good job in their depiction of Pokémon, which will appease long-term fans (particularly those of the anime).
While the setting and depictions of Pokémon will appease long-terms fans of the franchise, the depiction of human characters is a bit more hit-and-miss. The primary human character, Tim Goodman, is somewhat in-keeping with the playable characters from the games and a number of main characters from the anime in that he only has one parent in his life.
However, unlike the games, the reason why he only has his father left is revealed to be due to his mother having died when he was a child. Where Tim differs from both the playable characters in the games and anime protagonist Ash Ketchum, however, is in the fact that he has long since given up on his childhood dreams of becoming a Pokémon trainer, so the heart of Detective Pikachu is found in Tim learning how to work effectively with the titular Electric Mouse and rediscover his love for Pokémon.
Unfortunately neither Tim Goodman nor Lucy Stevens are memorable or particularly engaging characters, unlike Detective Pikachu and Lucy’s Psyduck. When we play the main game series we play as a human, not the Pokémon, and when we watch the anime we are often more invested in the human characters than in their Pokémon.
When Misty reluctantly stopped travelling with Ash after the Johto League, we the fans were gutted to lose Misty, but were not fussed about losing her Goldeen or Staryu. When Ash beat Paul in the Sinnoh League Quarter-Finals, we were not just delighted to see his Infernape prove to Paul how much it had grown under Ash’s care, but we were delighted to see Ash finally prove to Paul that he is a trainer of merit, having spent the entire Sinnoh saga being treated as an inferior by his cold rival.
In short, despite the Pokémon themselves being the biggest draw to the franchise for us fans, we like to have human characters whom we can get behind, who are memorable and whose journey and development is at least as engaging to watch as that of the Pokémon themselves. Had the anime consisted solely of Pokémon battles and had nothing in the way of character development, then we would likely have stopped watching it a long time ago. Had we played as Pokémon rather than as trainers when playing our original main series game, then we would never have grown as Pokémon trainers, or as gamers who think strategically. So, having spent 20 years of my life watching the anime and playing the games, I did indeed find it disappointing that Detective Pikachu does not have memorable human characters.
However, despite having been disappointed by the lack of memorable human characters, I can honestly say that Detective Pikachu certainly does enough to appease long-term fans of the Pokémon franchise such as myself. A lot of that which is most pleasing does come down to the sheer number of Easter Eggs (both overt and subtle) to the sheer scale of the world of Pokémon, and to the original series of the anime.
For those who have been fans since Generation I, the film does play to nostalgia, from the opening homage to Pokémon: The First Movie, to the prominent use of many of the most popular Pokémon from Generation I (including Bulbasaur, Charizard, Blastoise, Psyduck, Gyarados and, of course, Pikachu), to the nods to the original anime theme song. While Detective Pikachu may not get quite everything note-perfect, there is plenty to appease you if you are a Pokémon fan, whether you have been a fan for two years or for two decades.