Spoilers ahead, by the way. In case it wasn’t obvious.
I know it’s been out for a while, but I only recently saw Detective Pikachu, and I gotta say, I enjoyed the heck out of it. I don’t plan on making this a review – it’s a little late for that, and even if it wasn’t, there are way, way more qualified people who could and already have done that kind of thing – but I do want to point out that as a Pokemon fan, it was about the most brilliant thing I had ever seen in my entire life. In terms of Pokémon, in any case. It wasn’t quite the “dark and edgy” Pokémon movie I always wanted to see when I was a stupid kid, but it just might be the best version of a live-action Pokémon movie I could imagine now, and is certainly the greatest live-action Video Game movie that’s ever been made… although in my humble opinion Wreck-It Ralph is still the best overall.
And there was a lot I liked. I liked seeing all the Pokémon up there on screen (even if there wasn’t any Mawile, which was a disgusting oversight), I liked the genuine and sincere effort to bring every aspect of the Pokemon universe to life – from creepy Mr. Mime to gross Lickatung to horrifying Gengar and… well… Ditto. And I liked all those little details they put in there, like how the phones looked like Pokedexes and the occasional but noticeable references to the games. But there was one choice that, while I completely understand and respect, sort of makes me anxious about future Pokémon movies. One that really made me think. And one that I’m both excited and worried about them tackling in the future.
And it was near the very start of the movie.
Okay, so, the main character – Justice Smith, AKA Tim Goodman – just got news that his pops died, and is on his way to Rhyme City. While he’s on the train, he watches an informative video explaining the origins of this region, which details how it was founded by a dude named Howard Clifford, who dreamed of making the region a utopia for Humans and Pokémon alike. To that end, unlike the rest of the world, Rhyme City has no Pokémon League, there are no Pokémon trainers, and Pokémon battles and Pokeballs are outlawed.
Now: from a narrative and cinematic standpoint, I totally get this. For one thing, people came here to see the Pokémon, and there would straight-up be less to see if they were all trapped in Pokeballs, so outlawing the balls makes sense as a cinimatic device to make sure there are always Pokémon on screen. It also makes sense from a plot standpoint, because if they could just withdraw their Pokémon into balls the finale would be a lot less dramatic. And I also understand that they didn’t want Pokémon fights to be the main driving force, I get that they wanted to ease people into the world with a more non-violent part of the Pokémon universe, and most of all, I get that people by and large understand –and have largely made similar observations -- that when you break it down, Pokémon fights and trainers and Pokeballs are kind of messed-up concepts.
But actually going so far as to point out how messed-up it is in-universe creates kind of a big problem, because it shoots future Pokémon movies in the foot.
Here’s the thing: while people love to glibly point out how messed up the Pokémon universe is, making ten-year-olds leave their homes to trap wild animals into tiny balls and fight each other to near-death, what always made it sort of “palatable” was the air of childlike innocence and wistfulness that permeates the whole series. Sure, to our eyes, it’s a messed up thing to do, but we’re living in a different world from the Pokémon one, and time and time again the shows and the other movies and the games have shown that not only do Pokémon and Humans love each other in spite of the battles and balls, the battles and balls actually bring them closer together.
And sure, the games have sometimes explored the morality of their premise: for example, with Team Plasma and a few NPC’s that wonder about what happens to Pokémon in boxes – but those questions are usually answered very quickly and very positively. Not only are team Plasma wrong about Pokémon handling, their motives were shown to be greedy and cruel. And in Sun and Moon, they show that Pokémon you store in your box are whisked away to a vacation paradise where they can relax in springs, farm berries, train, and, uh… “explore some fun caves”. Basically, every time Pokémon has grappled with the issue of morality, it’s addressed directly (Balls are comfortable, Pokémon like fighting, the PC’s are fun) and dismissed without further lingering or questioning. It never becomes an issue because the series makes a point to never make it an issue, which is great: it would be way more uncomfortable if we felt guilty for playing the damn game. So they keep it light and simple and fun.
Detective Pikachu, however, does it differently: in the very first ten minutes, it says “Pokémon Battles are crude and cruel, Pokeballs are confining and gross, and we all hate them”… in effect. And it never questions, doubts, or presents an alternative to those views: heck, the one proper “trainer” we meet is a guy who’s equally concerned about his Jacket as he is his Charzard, sort of painting a picture of someone who views his Pokémon as less of a partner and more as a possession.
Well, I shouldn’t say “never”. One of the very first scenes makes it clear that for a Pokémon to get caught, you can’t just choose it, it has to choose you too. Which is a lot more touching than the old method of “beating them to a sliver of their life”, and frankly a canon interpretation I much prefer.
But that’s not the point: I reiterate, for the purposes of this movie, it’s fine that they want to paint Pokémon Battles in that light. But we’re not getting another Detective Pikachu movie (they sort of gave this movie a fairly definitive ending) and let’s face it: we can’t keep having movies in Ryme City. And given that the natural next fit for Pokemon movies would be some kind of sport-based thing, well… the issue of Pokémon trainers, fights, and the morality of them will come front-and-center of movie-goers minds. Now that we’ve already established that there are at least some parts in the Pokémon world that think these are bad and should be outlawed, they’re either going to make all the characters in these future movies look like jerks… or they’re going to have to spend a considerable amount of time explaining and justifying how Pokémon battles aren’t innately bad, messed-up things. And even if they do put forward that kind of legwork, well… these people who normally try to ruin the fun of the Pokémon world with their glib observations will now just have more ammunition and legitimacy, by way of Rhyme City.
I’m not saying it’s going to be impossible, of course. I’m not a Hollywood screen writer, and it’s entirely possible that they’ll keep finding ways to set movies in Ryme City. Maybe that will be the whole thing. After all, the Pokémon Company is on record saying that the reason they chose Detective Pikachu to be their first movie was because they wanted to justify the movie’s existence: and simply re-telling the plot of the games wouldn’t do that. So maybe, just maybe, I’m totally wrong, and the Pokémon Company will insist that all future live-action Pokémon movies never focus on the world of battling and training because that’s strictly the realm of the games. Which would be respectable… but then what do you do?
You could maybe make a movie out of Pokémon Snap. I could see a case of a movie about a photographer going into the Pokémon wilds to, I don’t know, take pictures for a magazine in theory, but is secretly going there to find evidence of Team Rocket or something. You could also probably get a movie out of the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, or at least, the basic premise of a human getting turned into a Pokémon and dragged into a weird Pokémon world. But it’s only going to be a matter of time before people start wanting to see a bona-fide Pokemon movie on the screen, and for the non-hardcore fans, well, it’ll either come as a shock, or the screenwriters are going to have to do, as I mentioned… a lot of legwork.
Or who knows? Maybe people will just slap their hands together and cheer because explosions and CGI monsters. I don’t think that would happen, considering how cute the damn things are, but hey, people really do like watching things explode.
Proud to be an American, and all that.