Spoilers for Pokémon Detective Pikachu below.
As Detective Pikachu himself might say, the plot of the movie Detective Pikachu is “very twisty.” There’s a central mystery surrounding the spread of R, a dangerous drug that makes Pokémon lose their minds, as well as a running thread involving Pikachu’s amnesia and the disappearance of his partner in sleuthing. That partner was Justice Smith’s character Tim Goodman’s father, and though we’re told he’s presumably dead at the beginning of the movie, it quickly becomes pretty clear that something more is going on. So we arrive at one more twist: Detective Pikachu is actually Tim Goodman’s father, trapped inside his partner Pokémon.
It’s a surprise, especially if you made the reasonable assumption that Pokémon and humans are separate entities that don’t just merge consciousnesses. But it’s justified in the movie thanks to Mewtwo, the super-powerful Psychic Pokémon and star of that first movie. In the Detective Pikachu world, as it turns out, Bill Nighy’s Pokémon-style Rupert Murdoch and Rita Ora’s scientist capture Mewtwo to harvest its cells to make R. Nighy plans to use Mewtwo’s talents, plus the havoc-wreaking drug, to get people to merge completely with their Pokémon. Mewtwo, who isn’t that evil in the end, already did this with Tim’s dad and his Pikachu, who were working with the movie’s villains until Tim’s dad realized how horrifying their scheme was. So, once everything else is cleared up at the end of the movie, Justice Smith gets a nice reunion with human detective daddy Ryan Reynolds. Considering that this is all a lot to unpack, Vulture caught up with Detective Pikachu writers Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit, who are also diehard Pokémon fans, to explain a little of their thinking.
First, the twist about the real identity of Detective Pikachu. It’s actually a plot point that the 3DS video game Detective Pikachu implies, but never makes explicit, in a cut scene from its last level. There, Mewtwo (also a part of the mystery but with a smaller role than in the movie) talks with Pikachu, who never actually turns back into Tim’s father. “We were tasked with making it explicit and not implied,” Hernandez told Vulture. “And also doing it in a way that made sense and integrating Mewtwo into the story.” They added that they wanted to provide a logic for how Mewtwo could pull off the merging of humans and Pokémon without getting tangled up in the very complex lore of the Pokémon universe.
To that end, the movie establishes that Mewtwo can merge a person with a Pokémon through the use of R, and provides a glancing description of Mewtwo’s history, which also reveals that the events of Detective’s plot take place twenty years after the first Pokemon movie. Hernandez and Samit had to clear all of this with The Pokémon Company itself. “They were very involved, through all of the process from initial story breaking to character design,” Samit said. “They really care.”
The video game version of Detective Pikachu’s mystery is heavier on puzzles than emotion, so Hernandez and Samit also had to go about building an emotional arc for the movie. For that, they looked to the concept of evolution, in which one Pokémon transforms into another more powerful one, and applied it to the human characters. “How can we have this character of Tim evolve over the course of the movie?” Samit said. “Pokémon has a connection to his dad, and he’s someone who has pushed Pokémon away from him … denying that part of himself. Over the course of the movie he evolves into someone who sees all the beauty and majesty of Pokémon and reconnects with why he loved them in the first place.”
Samit and Hernandez got to hand pick many of the Pokémon they wanted to include in the movie; they wanted to emphasize the aspects of the creatures that have made people attach to them. “Someone’s favorite Pokémon is very personal. It goes back to childhood, it goes back to deep feelings people had,” Hernandez said. “So we really wanted to try to hit as many of those things as we could so that people felt like this movie isn’t just its own thing but tied into everything else that we have taken the time to study and love over twenty years.”
Amid the stew of elements that make up Detective Pikachu, there’s also the key fact that it’s a detective story, which meant that the writers looked to movies like The Third Man — the film is referenced by name in the script to describe how Detective Pikachu himself appears out of the shadows like Orson Welles — and listened to ’40s and ’50s detective radio shows to find the cadence of Pikachu’s tough guyish dialogue. Plus, there’s Kathryn Newtown’s character, who, in an expanded role compared to Tim Goodman’s reporter friend in the game, plays a dangerous noir dame with a secret — who also happens to be an unpaid intern writing Pokémon listicles at a big media company. At one point she complains that it’s terrible having to write “ten cutest Pokémon” lists, because “they’re all cute!” It’s all perfectly typical of the kind of humor Hernandez and Samit used to ground their universe. “We thought to ourselves, This is a fantastic world, but it also has to be mundane,” Hernandez said.