Detective Pikachu

'Detective Pikachu' Is Weird as Hell—and It's Working

The film is far from what Pokémon fans expected, but it's still somehow collecting oodles of praise

Courtesy: Warner Bros.

Today, Feb. 27, marks the 23rd anniversary of the original Pokémon Game Boy games' release. What once began as a humble Japanese role-playing game in 1996 has since evolved into the highest-grossing media franchise of all time. Pokémon’s mascot, the electric rodent Pikachu, is practically omnipresent, from McDonald’s Happy Meals to a massive balloon over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. On May 10, Pikachu will hit a new milestone: the first ever live-action Pokémon film in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.

Like anyone born in the early '90s, I was swept up in the Pokémon craze the moment its trifecta of video games, animated shows and trading cards hit the U.S. Unlike many, however, I’ve spent a disgusting amount of time over the last two decades of my life connected to the franchise.

I’ve competed and commentated at the Pokémon Trading Card Game World Championships. I’ve seen nearly all of the anime’s 1,000-plus episodes. I’ve interviewed Pokémon’s game director and CEO. For the better part of the last decade, my job as a gaming content creator has involved collecting as many obscure and interesting Pokémon facts as I can uncover. And yet, despite my life seemingly revolving around Pokémon since elementary school, one thing in this franchise surprises me more than ever: Detective Pikachu is weird as hell.
Pokémon has spent the last two decades rooted in consistency. Its main series of games has used the same familiar battle and capture mechanics since day one. Its anime protagonist, Ash Ketchum, is still a comically un-aging 10-year-old boy. Its 800-plus creature designs, while varied, use the same colorful art direction and style laid out by Ken Sugimori. Detective Pikachu throws this consistency out the window.

The forthcoming 2019 film, loosely based on a 2016 adventure video game of the same name, uses a new gritty and realistic style for its beasts. Previously smooth-looking Pokémon, like the balloon-based Jigglypuff, are covered in matted and textured fur. The normally charming, duck-like Ludicolo is now downright terrifying—complete with a greasy “beard” and bulging exotropic eyes. The fan-favorite Charizard now looks like it’d look be right at home alongside Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones. These are very literally Pocket Monsters.

And then there’s Pikachu. Our titular character—voiced by Ryan Reynolds—speaks fluent English and forms an unlikely duo with 21-year-old Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), on a quest to solve his father’s disappearance. It’s Pokémon meets 2012’s Ted, where an adorable exterior has been given an unexpectedly crass personality. This is a Pikachu that investigates murders, farts and even cusses. In our newest trailer, an endangered Pikachu belts out a now internet-famous, “Get me the hell out of here!”
Sure, “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” might not even be a swear-jar word for the kids of 2019, but hearing the perennially family-friendly Pokémon mascot with a little bit of attitude immediately caught me off guard. Detective Pikachu continues to embrace this playful darkness in its marketing, such as this teaser that features Ryan Reynolds abandoning his family in his method acting for the film.

Every time new media for this movie drops, I see a new scene or design that completely clashes with the friendly image of the Pokémon that I’ve grown up with. We see the old Pikachu parade float make an appearance, except this time it’s being engulfed in an explosion while Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” belts in the background. Like a Venomoth to the flame, I keep finding myself more and more interested in this newfound chaos. For the first time in a long time, I feel like there’s a Pokémon product out there that acknowledges its user might be a bit older than 10 years old.

In spite of just how far Detective Pikachu deviates from its source material, most hardcore Pokémon fans that I know are just as optimistic as I am. At the time of writing, the film’s newest trailer has an overwhelming 98.7 percent thumbs-up to thumbs-down ratio. All of this escalating hype even has me thinking the impossible: Could this possibly be the first good video-game movie?

Like a Venomoth to the flame, I keep finding myself more and more interested in this newfound chaos.

Video games are loved by millions on gaming consoles and computers, but they’re almost unanimously despised on the silver screen. With a sample of nearly 50 major gaming films over the last 30 years, not a single one has come close to reaching a 75 percent “Certified Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes. For some franchises, it’s difficult to condense a 10-to-20-hour gaming narrative into an easily digestible two-hour film. Other flicks, such as 1993's infamous Super Mario. Bros., diverted so far away from the source material that the end result is hardly recognizable for fans of Mario. I believe in my heart that 1995’s Mortal Kombat is a campy good time, but I could never admit with a straight face that it’s actually a good film.

I would not be shocked if Detective Pikachu drops another mediocre video-game movie onto the endless pile, but it’s hard not to root for it. It’s adapting a simple story for a simple game. It’s taking a familiar subject and presenting it through an interesting new lens. It’s respecting what longtime fans might like to see. Most importantly, it looks like a lot of fun.

Today, on Pokémon Day, most fans are in a frenzy for another reason. The first trailer was revealed for the heavily anticipated Generation 8 Nintendo Switch Pokémon games: Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield. The UK-based Galar region was unveiled, alongside our eighth big-eyed, big-headed “starter” Pokémon. Predictably, they are fire, grass and water types—the same successful formula that we’ve seen over the last 23 years.

But my heart is in a different place. I’ve spent over two thirds of my life playing the same “catch and battle” Pokémon game formula. Watching Team Rocket get blasted off into the sky for the hundredth time. Playing the same repetitive Pokémon Trading Card Game strategies because the new cards keep borrowing text from the old ones. Pokémon is a comfortable hobby, and Detective Pikachu is asking me to step outside of my comfort zone for once. I’m all for it. Let’s get weird.

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