Detective Pikachu, a big blockbuster movie about a small electric mouse in a hat that solves mysteries, takes place in the weird, wonderful, more than occasionally baffling Pokémon universe. It’s a standalone movie, for the most part, that’s based on a game of the same name, so it’s not really obligated to explain all the details of that universe, or include all 807 Pokémon (not counting regional variations and alternate forms) that Nintendo has let loose into the minds of children everywhere. But one thing that’s impressive about Detective Pikachu is just how many Pokémon from various installments in the video game series actually do make it into the movie.
There are Growlithe wandering around with police officers, a variety of flying-type Pokémon wandering through the skies in the corners of the screen, and of course a Jigglypuff that sings and puts people to sleep. If you don’t know Pokémon, this is all nonsense and I’m not sure how to help you, but if you know Pokémon, you’ll get the sense that the movie was written by people who know their stuff. That’s true: Vulture caught up with the writing team of Benji Samit and Dan Hernandez, two big Pokémon fans that worked on the script with director Rob Letterman and writer Derek Connelly, to discuss their approaches to five key Pokémon that are featured in the movie.
Arguably the breakout star of Detective Pikachu, Psyduck is a big, yellow, psychically distressed duck that releases giant bursts of energy when it gets a headache, and since it doesn’t appear in the game, it was the first Pokémon Hernandez and Samit pitched to add to the movie, promising the higher ups that it would make for good comedy.
“Psyduck is my favorite Pokémon and maybe it’s because I myself have a lot of psychic stress that often resulted in an explosion,” Hernandez said. “We felt as writers it’s so much easier to write for a character that has a comedic point of viewability — has a comedic game. We were trying to figure out which Pokémon are not only cool and cute but actually have a distinct personality and a way of behaving in a given circumstance that’s funny and unique.”
To that end, the movie includes a set piece wherein Psyduck gets increasingly anxious, and then, of course, goes off like a bomb. “That is the moment we had written into the first draft of everything that we had done,” Samit said. “Because we really wanted to show — Yes, he’s cute, yes, he’s funny, but there is a real power in this little guy and that is hilarious and cool and totally unique to Pokémon.”
Hernandez and Samit wanted to represent as many Pokémon from as many generations as possible in Detective Pikachu. If you stopped playing the game more recently, you might not recognize the Morelull that appear in a forest, but you’d probably still be familiar with Magikarp, a useless, flopping fish that, in the right circumstances, evolves into a dragonlike (but not dragon-type!) Gyarados. One Magikarp appears in a scene early in the film, and it’s probably not a spoiler to say that in keeping with the comedic games Hernandez and Samit set up, it does evolve.
“We think that there’s this cool parallel, thematically, of evolution,” Hernandez said, “Both literal, in the case of the Pokémon, and emotional, in the case of the human. It seemed important to us that you take this thing that was a joke for all those years, the worst one, and say, at the right place at the right time, that’s the thing that can save your life.”
Two other key set pieces Hernandez and Samit worked on involved an interrogation scene with the mime Pokémon Mr. Mime, and an action scene involving the earth turtle Torterra. For both, the writers were once again looking to include interesting, comedic games that showcased creatures’ specific abilities. They’d run their ideas up the flagpole, as they put it, to executives at The Pokémon Company overseeing the movie. “Down to the species, they had opinions on the behaviors and I think that is to their great credit,” Samit said. “A Squirtle would behave like this and that’s completely different than a Gengar. We knew if they signed off on something, they were behind it and they never questioned it again.”
In the case of the interrogation scene, the writers decided to use Mr. Mime, who will only reveal information if the other Detective Pikachu characters consent to his game of charades. The action scene made sense for Torterra, a Pokémon that contains an entire landscape on its back. Torterra appears in a lab, where we’re told that they’re making the Pokémon larger than average. (As you might expect, that pays off with some Torterra that are much, much larger than average.)
We won’t spoil Mewtwo’s specific involvement in the Detective Pikachu plot, but suffice it say that the legendary psychic-type that appeared in the first movie also makes an appearance here (as it did in the video game) as part of a mystery involving a sinister science lab (and also Rita Ora). “Mewtwo brings a lot of history with that character and not everyone is necessarily familiar with that character,” Hernandez said. It became the writers’ job to explain enough about Mewtwo’s past — the movie briefly mentions the events of the first Pokémon movie happened 20 years ago — without getting bogged down in the details of it. Suffice it to say, all you really need to know about Mewtwo is that it’s mysterious, angry, telepathic, and super powerful.
Keep your eye on the gelatinous blob that appears early on in Detective Pikachu, because it’s a Ditto, a kind of Pokémon that can transform into any other. It doesn’t appear in the game, but it’s a Pokémon the writers always wanted to play around with, considering its special gimmick — though they promise they didn’t quite realize how unnerving it would be to watch a CGI blob morph into a human. To be fair, body doubles are a conceit that works well in a noirlike movie, giving a sort of Vertigo air to the whole proceedings. Just imagine the pink blob standing in for a Hitchcock blonde.