Let’s get this out of the way right now. Detective Pikachu has no right to be as good as it is. After years of missteps attempting to make a video game based movie, a major Hollywood studio has finally succeeded, creating a movie that is entertaining, memorable, and an all around enjoyable experience for fans. For me, there was also a sense of familiarity in what I was seeing, not just with the world of Pokemon but the style and tone of the film itself. It reminded me of another film I’d grown up on called Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
For starters, both Detective Pikachu and Who Framed Roger Rabbit share a very definite sub genre. Both are examples of the ‘buddy cop’ movie, a sub genre of the crime thriller featuring mismatched partners forced to work together. Detective Pikachu follows Tim Goodman, an unsatisfied loner in his early 20s as he investigates his father’s disappearance, finding that his father’s Pikachu could hold the answers. Who Framed Roger Rabbit follows Eddie Valiant, a jaded alcoholic private eye who is forced to partner up with a comedic toon who has been framed for murder.
At first glance, the similarities are actually pretty obvious. Both films parody the buddy cop genre and feature a real world human forced to partner up with a literal cartoon character. However, the films also share deeper similarities in both their themes and overall style. For instance, rather than simply parody the genre, Who Framed Roger Rabbit takes the opportunity to explore the golden age of classic animation, and what it meant to its audience growing up in the 30s and 40s. It was about nostalgia, which is also a central theme in Detective Pikachu.
Justice Smith’s character of Tim Goodman is a lot like Bob Hoskins’ Eddie Valiant. He follows a tried and true archetype of a jaded cynic forced to give up on his dreams, settling instead for a life of mundanity. What’s interesting about Tim’s character is his age. Most Pokemon related media have protagonists in their pre and early teens, such as the perpetually young Ash Ketchum. Tim by contrast is in his mid 20s, around the age as many first generation fans would be.
Pokemon is one of popular culture’s strangest animals. When it first made its debut, many assumed it was a fad that would quickly pass. Instead, the series has maintained a strong fan base not just amongst young children, but those who initially grew up with it, myself included. I’m not exactly an expert of Pokemon, but I do have a figure of Mewtwo on the desk in my office. In spite of this, when it came to animated shows, manga and games, Pokemon never really portrayed this part of the fan base before, primarily focusing on children as its protagonists. One might have expected Who Framed Roger Rabbit to take this route as well, but it, like Detective Pikachu, instead puts its focus on an adult hero. Both films follow characters who have grown out of love with their passion, but through their experiences, learn to love it all over again.
This is accomplished through the mystery genre, a highly appropriate choice. Not only are mystery stories exciting with a lot of twists and turns, but at their core, they’re about exploring the world the characters are in. Doing so actually allows the audience to explore the world along with them, which not only helps new audiences understand a world and its rules, but also helps longtime fans find some familiar faces, further exploring themes of nostalgia. Eddie Valiant meets a lot of familiar faces on his search through Toon Town, and so does Tim as he explores the underbelly of Ryme City.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit contained numerous callbacks and references to classic cartoons, with cameos by such toon superstars as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Daffy Duck, etc. Detective Pikachu also contains numerous callbacks to various points in the franchise history. This film opens with the Mewtwo (who you can probably guess is my favorite) escaping from a lab, much like how he did in the 1999 animated film. In another scene, a Ditto’s attempt to mimic a person is given away by its eyes, a callback to an episode from the show. Some references are a little on the nose, like Pikachu’s somber rendition of the classic Pokemon theme, but all of these moments are more than just callbacks. They are strongly evocative of many memories we have of Pokemon.
Still, Detective Pikachu knows when to restrain itself. One of the strengths of the film is in how it uses, or rather doesn’t use, one of the most popular aspects of the Pokemon series. Pokemon is ultimately a roleplaying and fighting RPG. One of the issues of both the animated show and films was an overemphasis on the battle aspect. The first animated film in particular was essentially a series of never-ending matches. This film however doesn’t spend a lot of time on Pokemon battles. There are a few sprinkled throughout the film, but the main focus of the film isn’t on that. It’s on the mystery, and how the characters interact with it. In exploring the mystery, the film proves itself to be very knowledgable in the Pokemon universe.
I suspect the reason for this is, like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, this is a movie made by fans. Many Hollywood adaptations of video games were made by people who lacked the most basic knowledge of the properties they were based on, with more of an interest in using the property to make a quick buck. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was done by people who grew up when Goofy and Bugs Bunny cartoons played at the corner nickelodeon. It was in many ways an outlet for its makers to live out a dream. What if there was a way to walk amongst Donald Duck and Betty Boop? What if they lived in our world? It answers this question with surprising credibility, creating a world that feels tangible in spite of the colorful characters that inhabit it. Detective Pikachu is the same way.
One of the most surprising things about Detective Pikachu is not only how true the Pokemon are to their original designs, but also how seamlessly they blend into the real world. Detective Pikachu ran a real risk, following their original designs to the letter with only the most subtle of changes. Though they’re made to look realistic, every Pokemon in the movie looks exactly like their animated counterparts. Doing this, there was a risk that the world of the film wouldn’t feel real. But the world of Detective Pikachu does feel real. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a lot of this has to do with its design. Both films have bright and colorful characters, but the worlds they inhabit are muted and cold. Ryme City is a busy place, but it’s not a bright one. The surroundings look no more unusual than a stroll down any real world city. This has a dual effect of making the Pokemon characters pop that much more, but also making them more tangible by placing them in a more realistic environment. For the first time, the world of Pokemon seems real enough to reach out and touch.
Both films also manage to balance the bright and dark with their characters, showing a keen ability to balance humor with gravitas. Both films are funny when they need to be, which is most of the time. That makes the emotional gut punches land that much harder. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Eddie has descended into alcoholism after his brother’s death, and a lot of his behavior towards toons has uncomfortable similarities to real world racism. Tim is similarly cynical. He’s a character marred by missed opportunities. His dream of being a Pokemon Trainer is dead in the water, and the father he wanted to know is seemingly dead, leaving him to wonder what could have been.
Both films feature the human protagonist having a serious, somber discussion with their animated co-star about their pain. In Who Framed Roger Rabbit, it was when Eddie opens up to Roger about his brother’s death. In Detective Pikachu, it was Tim telling his father’s Pokemon partner that he wished he was brave enough to leave home. Both scenes are played with a straight face, and in spite of the cartoon characters that share the screen with them, neither Tim’s nor Eddie’s moments are any weaker for it. In spite of being set in a world of cartoon characters, both movies allow themselves moments of emotional potency and maturity.
As an older Pokemon fan, this was something I’d been dying to see the series do. For a long time, Pokemon seemed to stay young while the fans, however passionate, grew older. It was frustrating to see a series with such untapped potential for so many wonderful, creative stories never allow itself to grow. Detective Pikachu is the first time I’ve seen the franchise allow itself that little growth, showing how versatile this world can be. In doing so, as Who Framed Roger Rabbit did before it, Detective Pikachu became a movie for fans both young and old. It may not be as great as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but it’s just as fun.
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