The central premise of Detective Pikachu is simple and disquieting. Pikachu - the sweet, yellow, fluffy Pokémon who can shoot electricity from his body - has become a cop. The film, a magic-infused child-friendly film noir, follows Tim (Justice Smith), as he searches for his father - a detective in the Ryme City Police Department - who has mysteriously disappeared. His investigations are assisted by his father’s erstwhile partner, Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds), Lucy, an unpaid journalism intern with aspirations to investigative reporting (Katherine Newton) and a rich and powerful philanthropist, news baron and inventor, Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy). Most humans have Pokémon companions but Tim does not - he lives with his grandmother and works in insurance. He thus acts as the ideal interloper through which we can vicariously explore the wonders of the Pokémon universe (a bit like a Pokémon video game).
Detective Pikachu takes place in a society of actually existing Pokémon. Pigeottos soar through the skies, Bulbasaurs stomp through the marshes and Snorlax naps on a zebra crossing. In the shiny new development of Ryme City, built to ‘celebrate the harmony between humans and Pokémon’, Pokémons cohabit and co-work with their human counterparts; Lickitungs commute and Squirtles fight fires. Big shiny adverts tell us how wonderful life is in Ryme City. At night, the neon streets and dive bars may look a little like Blade Runner Los Angeles, but the threatening smoke and shadows so common in film noir hide only Jigglypuffs and Aipoms. In daylight, Ryme City has a brighter, more utopian aspect, its shiny business centre lent an added magic by the joyful presence of Pokémon everywhere. Certainly some real-world recognisable flaws persist - Lucy is an unpaid intern forced to ‘write Pokémon listicles all day’ and Clifford, Murdoch-like, has accrued a worrying amount of power. We are also aware that, beneath this glitz, something is wrong; a crime has been committed. But this is, after all, cannot be a perfect city. What role would the police serve if there were no crimes to solve?
References to the crime/noir genre are central to Detective Pikachu. It deals knowingly with cop movie cliches, often inverting these, or Pokémonifying these, for comic effect. Angels With Filthy Souls plays in Tim’s father’s flat. Pikachu is reprimanded when he refers to Lucy as a ‘dame’. In place of the usual moon-eyed stranger who approaches the detective with suspicious information (à la Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown or Agent Annabella Smith in The 39 Steps ), Tim is followed by a neurotic Psyduck, a platypus-like yellow Pokémon. This anxious, yelling Psyduck with explosively powerful migraines also fills in the traditional/annoying role of the Screaming Woman, a stock character in the action/adventure genre, who must be coaxed out of hysteria by the leading man whenever things get tense (exemplified by Willie Scott in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Liberally scattered throughout the film, these jokes are successful for two reasons. Firstly, the youth of the central cast reassures us that these we can laugh at the cliches of the genre and can reject the unsavoury aspects of police movies inherent to the form. Secondly, many of these lines are spoken by a magical fantasy Pokémon. I guess you either find this funny or you don’t. But beneath the humour are some interesting tonal and ideological acrobatics. The original Pokémon is based on collecting, training and battling Pokémon, often solving mysterious quests along the way. The film needs to retain this sense of excitement and wonder whist enmeshing it within the satisfyingly clear three act structure and familiar tropes of a police detective movie. This forces Tim and Pikachu to constantly reposition themselves - one minute they are cops - Pikachu the professional, Tim the amateur sleuth who is learning the ropes, the next moment they reject the association. As they question a witness Tim shouts ‘we are not cops!’. Unsure of who to trust, they work alone, distancing themselves from the bureaucracy and uniforms of the Ryme City PD. But the visual and dialogic references of the film, the development of the characters and the overarching structure of the film continuously reasserts them as policemen. The violence of these associations are comically softened - they carry staplers instead of revolvers - but beneath the magic and sparkle of the Pokémon experience, the ideology of the state has been introduced, placing limitations on the scope and magic of the quest - both in terms of the cop film genre rules, and the rule of law.
But what type of cop is Pikachu? Is he a seedy private investigator, an institutionalised drone, an arrogant hobbyist or the iron fist of the state in a yellow velvet glove? Pikachu is best seen as a composite of cop archetypes. His Sherlock Holmes hat signals at an independence of spirit and a firm commitment to traditional deductive reasoning. Any effete associations are undercut, however, by his easy slang, fast-talking humour and addictive coffee swilling. He is a buddy cop, the consummate partner; he stays up late and rakes through the paperwork; he is wryly comedic in stressful scenarios; and he will touchingly put himself in danger to protect the public or fellow law enforcement (Tim, a policeman’s son, seeking justice and answers, but firmly rejecting the title of ‘cop’, represents both). In Hollywood, there are particular mythologies for particular cops; there is the new recruit defined by steadfastness and a hungry attitude. Detectives, by contrast, are usually marked out by their intellectual flair and epiphanic tendencies.Pikachu, notably, has reached detective rank (rather than a more mundane ‘Policeman/Procedural Pikachu’) but he fulfils all these roles. At times he even finds himself in bad cop territory - cheering Tim on as he interrogates a witness by pouring gasoline over a Mr Mime Pokémon. But Detective Pikachu cannot be a bad cop, he will never really torture witnesses with immolation because his cuteness is just as important as his investigative efficacy, both in terms of audience expectation, plot satisfaction and the market value of the billion dollar toy. Pikachu as conspirator to mock torture is funny because it is unexpected, it gives edge and something like grey areas to a character who has been characterised by a gormless wholesomeness since his first TV appearance in 1996. But the matches and the petrol must remain imaginary, and the joke, through mime, must be realised in the audience's minds - nothing like real flames can ever be shown on screen. The interactions between cops and toons in Who Framed Roger Roger Rabbit were often grim and violent - toons were roughed-up, melted and traumatised. This level of police-toy violence is unthinkable in Detective Pikachu. Cuteness is what Pikachu (and Disney’s 2016 Zootopia) adds to the Hollywood construction of the policeman. A yellow fluffy aesthetic, sure, but also an unimpeachable wide-eyed goodness has been added to the canon of on-screen cop behaviours. Detective Pikachu is thus an important development in the mythology of the Good Cop. In times of crisis his large eyes, perky ears and red cheeks are, and must remain, as powerfully and cinematically reassuring as the blue and silver policeman’s uniform.