Solving Detective Pikachu
I saw a movie a few days ago. It gave me everything it advertised and still left me cold. So let’s solve a mystery:
What is Detective Pikachu about? And why didn’t I like it?
(Fair warning: full spoilers ahead)
On a surface level, Detective Pikachu is about a boy named Tim who travels to Ryme City after his detective father dies mysteriously. There, he meets his father’s partner, an amnesiac, caffeine-addicted Pikachu that Tim can somehow understand perfectly. Together, Tim and Detective Pikachu decide to investigate Harry’s death and discover a secret, sinister plan for the inhabitants of Ryme City, human and Pokemon alike.
But let’s dig a little deeper. It can’t be that simple.
Pokemon the series is all about coexistence between the titular creatures and their human trainers. Yes, that coexistence takes the form of magical dogfighting, but the series consistently positions that as a partnership, where the Pokemon fight for the humans and the humans care for the Pokemon. The villains of the series are the Team(s) Rocket/Magma/Whatever, evil groups that steal other people’s Pokemon (which in this world amounts to separating families) and plan to use them for world domination and/or destruction. Battles are tests of the bond between Pokemon and trainer, one team measured against another.
In Detective Pikachu, Ryme City is positioned as a pseudo-utopia where Pokemon and humans live in harmony. They still form partnerships, but battling is outlawed and Pokemon don’t have to worry about being forcibly captured. Tim holds himself at a distance from Pokemon due to the way he associates them with his father’s perceived abandonment after his mother’s death (more on this later). His character arc is needing to open up to his love of Pokemon. His one big plot moment is communicating to a herd of Bulbasaur that Detective Pikachu needs healing by speaking from his heart and trusting they’ll understand.
And yet. At the end of the movie, the city’s designer, the man who outlawed battling, is revealed to have orchestrated the entire plot in order to inhabit Mewtwo’s body and fuse the minds of Ryme City’s human denizens with their Pokemon’s bodies in order to “evolve” them into higher lifeforms. Tim and Pikachu have to essentially battle Mewtwo in order to save the city. In Detective Pikachu, both opposition and coexistence-through-cooption are untenable options. So the movie is about the value of centrism.
Climate change exists in the world of Detective Pikachu. We know this because when the landscape itself turns against our heroes, Detective Pikachu exclaims, “And people say climate change doesn’t exist!” Ryme City is industrial, smoggy. Their world is ending just like ours, except in this one the animals who will die out are explicitly sentient beings on whom humanity relies. The center cannot hold. As with our world, the status quo that Detective Pikachu reinforces will inevitably eat itself alive. So the movie is actually about the impotence of centrism.
Just kidding. The climate change line is clearly just a quip. As much as I’d like this movie to be making some bold social statement, it’s clearly not.
So what else could the movie be about? Maybe family.
Tim’s mom dies. His father Harry moves to Ryme City to be a detective. Tim lives with his grandmother until his father invites him to come live with him. Tim refuses.
Billionaire Howard Clifford designed Ryme City as a place for Pokemon and people to live together. In doing so, he neglected his son, which fostered a distaste for Pokemon similar to Tim’s. When he falls ill and ends up in a wheelchair, his son neglects him back and Howard develops a plan to steal Mewtwo’s body.
In the end, Howard and his son find no peace. Tim and Harry do, because they learn to accept each other while Harry is trapped in Pikachu’s body.
Let me back up.
Howard recruited Harry to capture Mewtwo for him. Harry did, but grew a guilty conscience and busted Mewtwo out. Howard tried to have Harry killed as retaliation, but Mewtwo saved Harry’s life by hiding his mind (and body, somehow) inside of his Pikachu (with the Pikachu’s consent). At the end of the movie, Mewtwo restores Harry to his full Ryan Reynolds glory. Tim decides to stay in Ryme City with his father.
Tim’s resentment towards his father is only expressed through his aversion to Pokemon, because he doesn’t know Detective Pikachu is his father until they’ve already bonded through the trauma of saving a city and battling the Howard-possessed Mewtwo. Loving Pokemon is loving family. Loving family is loving Pokemon.
Love Pokemon like you love your family, because they’re really the same thing. That’s the message of Detective Pikachu.
In a way, I admire how blunt that is. In another way, I wish the movie had used that love—which already exists in its audience—as a frame for its story about family, rather than the other way around.
But maybe there’s more.
Maybe the entire reason I wanted to see Detective Pikachu was because I wanted to see a Pikachu solving mysteries. I got that, kinda—the villain and Mewtwo do most of the solving for the heroes. Maybe that’s a nitpick.
Maybe I resent Detective Pikachu because I’m estranged from my own parents. There’s no magical Mewtwo fix. I saw the movie on Friday. Today is Mother’s Day. I wanted something to distract me from that and I ended up with a movie that reminded me of it endlessly without providing any meaning or insight or catharsis.
Detective Pikachu is about a Pikachu who is a detective. It’s a harmless nostalgia pop that delivers on the promises of its marketing—no more, no less.
I thought that movie was what I wanted. But I guess I needed something else.