GIF: Detective Pikachu pushes two coffee mugs across the bar, saying “another round, extra shot.”
So, Pokémon Detective Pikachu. Overall comments: the pacing was a little wonky; unusually, I think it could have done with about fifteen more minutes of run time; the movie started out with a really beautiful John Woo-esque visual dynamic that I wanted to see carried through the whole thing. But I really want to talk about the animals–that is, the Pokémon. And cuteness. I want to talk about cuteness.
The film follows coffee-guzzling noir amnesiac Detective Pikachu (voiced by Deadpool, I mean Ryan Reyolds) and his reluctant human partner Tim Goodman, played skillfully and emotionally by Justice Smith. The duo meet up in Ryme City, a utopian-dystopian social experiment founded by disabled tech visionary Howard Clifford (played by Bill Nighy playing Bill Nighy). Goodman’s in the city to close up his estranged father’s apartment after the latter’s apparent death on the job. Detective Pikachu remembers nothing about his own former life, either than a bone-deep feeling that he’s a detective. Goodman just wants to deal with his father’s effects and return home to his boring job as an insurance adjuster. Detective Pikachu wants to find out who he is.
The movie is cute. In particular, Detective Pikachu is so cute as to make me want to weep openly. Even the hammy scene where he’s walking down a country road alone sobbing and singing the Pokémon theme song, a moment that is clearly comic relief, gave me major cute-feels.
GIF: Detective Pikachu wipes his nose as he walks down the road.
Their environment is less cute. In Ryme City, Pokémon and humans live cooperatively–there are no Pokeballs and there is supposed to be no Pokemon battles or trainers. I have questions, though, and lots of ‘em. Like, why is the built environment totally designed for human uses? Do people eat Pokémon? (There are some “normal” animals in the Pokeverse, per Bulbapedia, but they just don’t seem to be that important. In the movie, we don’t see any.) How come nobody’s gotten Psyduck a therapist, or failing that, some Tylenol? Where is all the Pokémon-sized infrastructure?
To me, the built environment of Ryme City represents one of the movie’s biggest flaws: although rethinking a possible relationship between animals and humans is at the heart of the movie’s plot, its engagement with these issues is superficial at best. That’s too bad, because engaging more wholeheartedly with how these relationships are navigated could have given the movie the weird edge it badly needs, without making it any less kid-friendly.
In one scene about a third of the way into the movie, Goodman and wannabe hard-boiled reporter Lucy Stevens (played by Kathryn Newton) are seated in a bar booth discussing secret research, awkward with sexual tension. Pikachu sits between them. “He’s excited. I think he just peed a little,” Pikachu says, referring to Goodman. “Wait, no, that was me.” Beat. Shucksy squirm.
This is the one moment in the movie that stuck with me, because of how much the rest of the movie isn’t kind of gross, and how much I think it should be. Being embodied is disgusting, as anyone who’s ever had the flu can tell you. But it’s also cute as hell, which is why Pikachu’s mild incontinence is adorable rather than appalling. “Cute has no inner world,” says philosopher Simon May, speaking to The American Scholar podcast host Stephanie Bastek. In other words: cute isn’t deep. It’s just, well, cute. But the fact that, even though cute can offer no deeper insights, we continue to be so drawn to it, suggests that power isn’t just about insight. After all, what in 2019 is just about itself?
Appearance is all most Pokemon have: even Detective Pikachu can only be heard by Goodman. Everybody else just hears his characteristic “pika pika” and writes him off as another adorably dopey Pokémon that can only say its name over and over in varying tones. The conceit of the movie is that Pokémon can express emotion, and they can understand human emotion, but they’re broadly nonverbal to humans.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about maps. Maps are a way of describing space, and describing is fundamentally about power. It’s a claim to authority. (Anybody engaging in the act of describing, myself included, should be treated with suspicion.) It’s significant that the only Pokemon with the ability to describe in such as way as to be understood by humans are Detective Pikachu, who is mystically imbued with the spirit of Ryan Reynolds, Mewtwo, a MacGuffin if ever I saw on, and Mr. Mime, a humanoid Pokémon who is deeply eery and can in no way be described as cute.
Maybe if more Pokémon could talk back authoritatively, Howard Clifford wouldn’t be able to get away with some of his bonkers meld-humans-and-Pokémon bullshit. Maybe Snorlax would finally get somewhere restful to sleep, instead of an intersection. Maybe they’d be able to describe a different, better movie whose plot doesn’t entirely disintegrate in the third act. Maybe we’d FINALLY FIND OUT where domesticated Pokémon use the bathroom. Do they have litterboxes?
Then again, it was pretty fucking cute.
Really I don’t understand the larger Pokeverse at all, and I’ve largely ignored Pokémon lore in this entry. If you want a review from the perspective of longtime franchise fandom, I suggest checking out Leigh Monson in BirthMoviesDeath.