Detective Pikachu and the appeal of the Pokémon franchise

14 May 2019 BY Steven Ryder in Film Features

5 mins

Over the last twenty years the Pokémon franchise, once considered nothing more than a passing trend, has grown exponentially through multiple mediums. This includes a wealth of video games, trading cards, an anime series, over 20 animated films and, most recently, the augmented reality mobile game Pokémon Go which took the world by storm. So, as the eagerly anticipated Detective Pikachu finally arrives, how has this inventive array of monsters, sometimes cute and sometimes ferocious, managed to capture the imagination of young audiences for so long?

Created in Japan by Satoshi Tajiri in 1995, in partnership with the video-game corporation Nintendo, the franchise's popularity surge was almost immediate. Pikachu, with his pudgy face and exclamation of "Pika-Pika" appealed to young people in both the East and West, to all genders and to a multitude of age ranges. This little, yellow electric mouse-type creature would become the face of a franchise that has now earned over $59.1 billion since its debut.

Children have long been attracted to the concept of collecting or organising and the Pokémon games have given them a digital outlet for this. Spurred on by the franchise's clever catchphrase "Gotta catch ‘em all!", there is a sense of completion to be found in exploring a world filled so much natural diversity. Players must match different species with their environments; basic, rodent-like Pokémon can be found in the grassy fields around townships whilst ground-type species are discoverable in caves and underground. There are even Pokémon with ice-like powers that can be found in the snowy, difficult-to-navigate, mountainous regions. Diversity and respect for the natural world are key elements to the themes of the Pokémon franchise and players forge bonds with their favourite creatures. The giant, dragon-like fire Pokémon Charizard and the powerful, sleepy, lovable Snorlax have become instantly recognisable to children the world over, whilst the mysterious Mew and the ghostly Gengar have caught the imagination of dedicated players. Originally launching with 151 Pokémon, the catalogue has now increased to a staggering 809 species and continues to grow every year. It is this vast array of shapes, sizes and "types" that appeal to both younger and more experienced gamers.

Following the game's success, the late 1990s and early 2000s saw Pokémon move into new mediums, ranging from trading cards to television series. The first Pokémon movie, aptly titled Pokemon: The First Movie, was a worldwide box-office success despite being animated in a typical Japanese ‘anime' style and, whilst not exactly critically acclaimed, truly aimed to represent good values and teach children a lesson about friendship, loyalty and humility. A line from the film's great antagonist, the ultra-intelligent psychic-type Pokémon Mewtwo, is still quoted around the internet today as a hopeful and encouraging message against prejudice; "I see now that the circumstances of one's birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are".

Now, twenty years after its creation, Pokémon is finally getting a live-action film. Nintendo have been reluctant to take the plunge over the years, possibly due to the critical and commercial failure of their last video game adaptation - the lamentable "Super Mario Bros." - but the worldwide success of the "augmented reality" mobile game ‘Pokémon Go', giving the players the chance to interact with Pokémon as they walk around the real world, may have given them a renewed confidence to forge ahead with this project, co-produced between Japan and the US. Despite the huge number of Pokémon now at their disposal the film will be spearheaded by their most recognisable character, Pikachu. Detective Pikachu is a blend of noir, comedy and action that treads the line wonderfully between younger audiences looking to be entertained and older audiences eager for some of that Pokémon nostalgia. Following the story of Tim, a young trainer who is joined on the search for his missing father by a Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) that, amazingly, he can communicate with. Banding together with this wise-cracking, sardonic creature (who wears an adorable little detective hat through much of the film) they discover clues as to what happened to Tim's father which, in turn, unearths a larger, underground Pokémon conspiracy.

There have always been lessons to be learned in the Pokémon universe; hard work, application and dedication can get you far in life whilst the bonds shared between trainers and their Pokémon foster the concept of loyalty and friendship for young audiences. You do not have to go too far to find the overarching message that Pokémon hopes to promote - the lyrics of the theme song state "Our courage will pull us through, you teach me and I teach you". With a sequel already in development, it seems safe to say that the Pokémon franchise is alive, well and possibly fostering a new generation of Pokémaniacs.

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is screening now in cinemas around the U.K.


Steven Ryder, Curation Officer

Steven has an MA in Film Studies, Programming and Curation from the National Film and Television School. He has previously worked for various exhibitors around England and currently freelances as a film critic/podcaster.

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