Why Detective Pikachu shies away from Pokémon battles

Veteran Pokémon fans might be taken aback by one of Detective Pikachu’s earliest scenes, in which protagonist Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) tries to capture a Cubone. Goodman doesn’t try damaging or battling the Pokémon, as one would in a game. He just throws a Pokeball at it.

As the characters explain it, in this region, capturing Pokémon is all about whether or not you establish a connection with them. Pokémon are able to feel what humans are saying, even if they can’t understand you.

In this way, Detective Pikachu takes more inspiration from Pokémon Go, a game where collecting buddies requires no violence. This peaceful attitude toward Pokémon makes sense, given that Detective Pikachu got the green light to be made after the Pokémon Go phenomenon that took over the world. It’s also directly based off of the Detective Pikachu title on the 3DS, which is more of a sleuthing game. The main games, meanwhile, ask players to bring creatures to near-death before you try capturing them. At the same time, video game Pokémon are cartoonish in a way that always reminds players that these aren’t real animals. Detective Pikachu, on the other hand, makes Pokémon realistic. Charizard is massive, and singes everything in its path. Torterras sprout vegetation that look like actual trees. Lickitung’s saliva is appropriately disgusting.

That realism may explain why overall, Detective Pikachu shies away from showing trademark Pokémon battles — who wants to see their favorite Pokémon get seriously hurt? It’s no surprise that Ryme City, the main locale of the movie, is a community in which people live in unison with their Pokémon pals. Here, nearly every Pokémon has a place and function. Squirtles help firefighters put out flames, while Machamps work as traffic cops. This attention to detail and willingness to integrate Pokémon into everyday situations is exactly what makes Detective Pikachu stand out from the games.

“Part of [The Pokémon Company’s] conceit for Detective Pikachu was to create a new region, Ryme City, that had a new set of rules,” Detective Pikachu director Rob Letterman told Polygon. “The Pokémon Company wanted to have the Pokémon not be in pokeballs. They wanted a region where humans and Pokémon had a different, elevated relationship where they co-existed. The Pokémon could be human beings’ familiars.”

Warner Bros.

Later on, when an underground fighting ring in Ryme City is uncovered, Detective Pikachu still refuses to make its characters fight. Pikachu, it explains, has lost its memory, and can’t perform signature moves like Volt Tackle. Instead, the yellow rodent runs away as a Charizard comes after it. There’s plenty of action in Detective Pikachu, it just doesn’t always unfold in a way that fans might expect.

According to Benji Samit, a screenwriter on Detective Pikachu, avoiding battles was one of the “bigger challenges” of writing the movie. The Pokémon Company was “very protective” of the franchise, and wanted to have a good reason to take on a live-action movie. Detective Pikachu, which is an offshoot of the main franchise, proved to be fertile ground for the project, which aimed to show people “a side of the universe that we’ve never seen before in the anime or anything like that,” Samit said.

“A lot of the classic elements of a Pokémon story were not really at our disposal,” Samit told Polygon. “At Ryme City, there are no battles, there are no trainers, there are no Pokeballs. We often thought of it as like writing a Star Wars movie without a lightsaber or the Force or anything like that. The key elements are just not part of this world.”

The problem is that, for fans, battling is practically synonymous with Pokémon. Dan Hernandez, who co-wrote Detective Pikachu with Samit, knows that people expect to see things like Psyduck’s explosive psychic abilities. Gravitating away from showcasing these moves in the context of battles, however, allowed for an easier introduction to the world of Pokémon to anyone who might be new to it. Mr. Mime may never pull out “Shield” to defend himself in a skirmish, but he does do it to mess with Goodman and Pikachu through extended pantomimes, and a viewer doesn’t need to know Pokémon minutia to get what’s going on.

Warner Bros.

“We really wanted to make sure that for people that maybe were less into Pokémon, that they understood from a pretty early point in the movie that these are creatures that not only were fantastical in the way they look, but also in the way that they behave. The powers that they have raises the stakes for this city, where any of these creatures could cause incredible damage or make an incredible problem,” Hernandez said.

This ethos to make Pokemon legible without stopping to explain concepts that have taken decades to develop in the games is a huge part of what makes Detective Pikachu so good. Newbies can jump right in, while longtime fans feel rewarded with a context for Pokemon that doesn’t really exist in the games.

”We see Snorlax sleeping in the middle of the street at a certain point, and Machamp is gesturing people past them,” Hernandez said. “We really wanted to organically weave in all of these powers and make it something that everyone just kind of understood and lived with, and it was almost a mundane part of life in Ryme City, which actually highlighted how special it was But these people aren’t really put out that much by Snorlax causing a traffic jam.”

Finding the perfect balance between being a welcoming introduction and a love letter to hardcore devotees may have been difficult, but that’s exactly what made the project interesting to work on.

“Even though it was a scary challenge, we were so excited by it because it’s a reason to be doing this new form,” Hernandez said. “It’s like a different side of the universe.”

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