‘Detective Pikachu’ Raises Troubling Questions No One Can Ever Hope to Answer

Placing pokémon in the real world opens a can of weedles that can't be closed.
"Pokemon: Detective Pikachu"
"Pokemon: Detective Pikachu"
Warner Bros.

The real mystery in “Detective Pikachu” is never even addressed, for it raises a question so existential that a movie in which Ryan Reynolds voices a beloved video-game character would never dare: If pokémon were real, wouldn’t they just be called animals?

Phrased another way, what actually distinguishes the charmanders and squirtles of the world from chimpanzees and salamanders? Since each pokémon is a distinct species, there has to be something that warrants defining them with a unique umbrella term that excludes the existing animal kingdom. One reason this question matters is because, without answering it, you can’t possibly explain the fundamental difference between pokémon battles and dog fights.

A number of theories emerge while pondering this conundrum. One popular idea among gamers hoping to assuage their guilt is that the pokémon-trainer relationship is akin to the boxer-trainer dynamic: Pokémon are compelled to fight — it’s just what they do — and need someone to shepherd them through that process as safely as possible.

Yet you don’t see too many cubones and flareons duking it out in the wild, and if they enjoyed fighting so much you might not need a pokéball to catch them and begin their lives of pugilistic servitude.

Pokémon don’t actually die in their bouts, of course — they merely faint. But what actually happens when a squirtle passes out after being bested by a clefairy? Is it like a football player getting a concussion, and are there protocols in place to ensure that it doesn’t fight again for a certain number of days in the same way that starting pitchers are granted rest days in between starts? How does an adorable poliwhirl get medically cleared, and what happens when a drowzee suffers so many defeats that its trainer decides not to fight it anymore? If a rapidash breaks its leg while using flare dash against a kabutops, does it meet the same fate as a horse that goes down while training at Santa Anita Park?

Detective Pikachu

Another difference, slight though it may be: Pokémon don’t meow or bark; they instead say their own names. They also, as evidenced by this film, can speak to one another in a way that they can understand but humans cannot. Do they express reluctance to fight each other, one can’t help but wonder, or have their minds been so poisoned against one another that they exchange fighting words?

With a 64% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a Metascore of 52, “Detective Pikachu” is the most well-reviewed video-game movie ever made. That isn’t much of an accomplishment, but it is part of a positive trend: “Rampage” and “Tomb Raider,” the two most recent game adaptations, each held that honor before being surpassed. And yet it’s almost a victim of its own success, at least among people who enjoy overthinking silly entertainment: If the movie didn’t integrate pokémon into the human world so seamlessly, none of these questions would have been raised in the first place.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. “Detective Pikachu” will earn a pretty penny at the box office this weekend and beyond, with would-be sleuths content that the mystery of its hero’s parentage has been solved. But those of us for whom that isn’t enough — those of us who, you might say, best embody the spirit of Detective Pikachu himself — will know that the real mystery remains unsolved…for now.

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