In 2016, at the height of fever for Pokémon Go, I thought about what it was exactly about Pokémon that endured in the hearts of aging millennials. It wasn’t until two years later when the trailer for Pokémon: Detective Pikachu came out that everything snapped into focus — and I realized I’d been overthinking it.
Pokémon was and is a touchstone that for many people around my age (I’m 29) represented pre-9/11 innocence. We remember a time when collecting cards and beating the Final Four were the only things that mattered. To hell with what else was going on in the world! When the trailer for the movie came out in November 2018, then, I felt its dialogue in my bones.
“I remember, you wanted to be a Pokémon Trainer when you were young,” says Ken Watanabe, playing a police detective talking to the protagonist Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith.
“Yeah,” says Tim, “that didn’t really work out.”
For both Tim and ourselves, those faded dreams feel too real. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu isn’t just a left turn in the sphere of serious movie adaptations based on nostalgic popular culture. Nor is it a genuinely touching movie about distance, loss, and second chances. It’s a movie about us. And Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is the best video game movie you need to stream on HBO Max before it leaves on March 22.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, released in 2019 from director Rob Letterman, is actually based on a Pokémon video game ... just not any of the ones you remember.
In 2016, The Pokémon Company released the adventure game Detective Pikachu for the Nintendo 3DS in Japan. A change of pace from the usual adventure RPGs that make up the core series, Detective Pikachu gave players control of Tim Goodman, a boy who can communicate with a talking Pikachu who has a knack for solving mysteries. (An English-language game released worldwide in 2018.)
Somehow, those at The Pokémon Company felt this was the one to bring to Hollywood. The company pitched the game to Legendary Pictures, who in turn pitched it to Letterman, whose experience in the realm of live-action CGI hybrids like Gulliver’s Travels (2010) and Goosebumps (2015) made him an ideal candidate.
The feature version of Detective Pikachu opens with Tim Goodman (Smith), a 21-year-old insurance salesman whose Pokémon dreams are behind him. The death of his father Harry, a detective, calls him to Ryme City, the only place Pokémon live side-by-side with humans. Arriving at his father’s apartment, Tim meets a talking, caffeine-addicted Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds). The two team up with Lucy (Kathryn Newton), a junior journalist, to crack the mystery of Harry’s father, whose murder might only be a missing persons case.
Detective Pikachu is wildly impressive not just as a live-action Pokémon movie with resonant themes (loss, innocence, estrangement) and a clever twist on noir film tropes, but as a metaphor for its adult audience’s relationship to Pokémon. While its 21-year-old protagonist is categorically a member of Generation-Z, he is an ideal stand-in for anyone who spent their prepubescent years “catching ‘em all.” Like many of us who haven’t kept up with all things Pokémon the past 25 years, Tim knows Pokémon in and out, but refuses to let that be known.
Early in the film’s second act, after Tim has reluctantly agreed to work with the Pokémon detective (who, by the way, is insanely adorable), Pikachu rummages through a facsimile of Tim’s childhood bedroom. Posters of Pokémon and even a Pikachu bedframe adorn the space. On a desk lies a three-ring binder chock full of Pokemon cards, a staple relic of any kid’s bedroom in 1999.
“All these Pokémon cards, these battle posters, there’s a connection,” Pikachu points out, with a smarmy Deadpool voice that adds salt to wounds. “You love Pokémon.”
Though Tim insists it was “a long time ago,” that passion never went away. Later at an underground Pokémon battle, Tim strategizes with Pikachu how to win against a ‘roided out Charizard. He speaks with specificity and expertise: “You can use Quick Attack, Discharge, or Elector Ball, but I think Volt Tackle is your best move.” When Pikachu asks, “When did you learn how to be a Pokémon Trainer?” Tim doesn’t answer. Because Tim learned a long time ago, and he never forgot.
Therein lies the magic of Detective Pikachu. Aside from die-hards who never stopped catching them all, most of us going into this movie now have our own stories, memories, and attachment to Pokémon. We know what it used to mean, and what it still might means for us. We might not think about it on a daily basis, but drop a few of those cards with the blue background of a Pokéball cracked ajar and watch us recall what Magmar and Vaporeon could do.
Still, growing up means accepting what was real and what is make-believe. And while Tim enviously lives in a world where Pokemon are real, we do not. And so Tim is our vehicle, someone who knows there is a great big world of fun but still ends up working in insurance. Which is why Detective Pikachu is such a miracle of a movie: It’s about nostalgia, both its disillusionment and its alluring scent that’s still potent when you open the bottle.
One truth to acknowledge is that Pokémon never “went away.” Like the Ninja Turtles and the Backstreet Boys, it reinvented and reiterated on itself over time — many of us just didn’t pay attention. But Pokémon is still a big deal, with still an engaged audience of fans worldwide. The franchise recently marked its 25th anniversary with Post Malone, of all people.
But Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, a seemingly one-and-done movie without a set future, is a special movie. Not because it speaks to all of us, but because it speaks to some of us.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is streaming now on HBO Max until March 22.