In the history of movies, it's possible that there have been cuter corporate creations than the title character in Pokémon Detective Pikachu. But right now I can't think of any. I can only think about Pikachu.
Pikachu has velvety, computer-generated fur. He has round brown eyes and round pink spots on his cheeks; and when he's surprised his mouth is also round, turning him into a collection of endearingly arranged circles. He's an astonishing 3D rendering of what is, let's face it, basically a squiggly line drawing. He speaks with the voice of Ryan Reynolds, for reasons I will not divulge because they are spoilers, and is addicted to coffee for reasons that I definitely missed if they were ever explained, but that I assume are an excuse to see his tiny little paws wrapped around tiny little cups. He exudes such intense levels of adorableness that consuming a full 104-minute movie about him feels potentially toxic, like that time Jeremy Piven said he got mercury poisoning from eating too much tuna.
Detective Pikachu is, technically, based on a 2016 video game about a young man named Tim Goodman (played by Justice Smith in the movie) who searches for his missing father with the help of a talking, deerstalker cap–wearing Pikachu. But the mystery, involving nefarious experiments and a drug that makes Pokémon go feral, is mostly an excuse to render some part of the vast, multitentacled Pokémon universe — which, in addition to games, spans an anime series, toys, trading cards, comics, and generations — into something resembling the real world.
The movie takes place in a slightly futuristic Ryme City, where people and Pokémon live side by side. If the idea of trying to extract a logical narrative out of a franchise based on the urge to collect and cultivate magical creatures sounds difficult, in practice Detective Pikachu makes it look easy. The movie offers up merch that talks, a digitally manufactured combination pet and pal. Every human character in the movie has a regular Pokémon partner — a Psyduck or Snubbull to call their own — but Pikachu is something different. Pikachu is a brand who is your friend.
And brands all want to be our besties now. Netflix is eager to chat about movies, and Sunny Delight is ready to get vulnerable about depression. Hamburger Helper put out a mixtape and it kind of slapped? Or, at least, it was way better music than anyone expected from a packaged food product, which is not quite the same as being good but can feel in the same general vicinity of it. In September, the Steak-umm Twitter account offered up a meta rant about why “so many young people” were “flocking to brands on social media for love, guidance, and attention,” musing about anxiety and student loan debt and nostalgia before closing with “be encouraged and have hope my beeflings, the world needs it.”
Brands do not actually care about us beyond the dollars we have to spend, and we know that, but we get drawn into participating in this simulacrum of warmth anyway. We engage in conversations and trade memes with them online, we assign personalities and emotions to them, and we develop loyalties to and fondnesses for what are not, in fact, people, but businesses borrowing the carefully curated voices of passing employees. Paying for products, subscribing to services, and consuming media can become a constant and its own kind of connection, but it's an emotionally one-sided one. Brands have gotten better at blurring that fact as they become more adept at social media, but it still feels a lot like we're the baby monkeys in that behavioral experiment, clinging to cloth-covered maternal effigies in the absence of genuine affection.
Last year, Hasbro’s Transformers franchise, which began as a toy line and grew into comic books and an animated TV series before becoming a set of live-action Michael Bay blockbusters, offered up a prequel to those movies that was basically E.T. with a robot that turns into a car. Bumblebee was pretty good, in that squirmy way that makes you aware that a company is prodding at your vulnerabilities and successfully finding them.
The trailer for the upcoming Sonic the Hedgehog movie, on the other hand, looked disturbing enough to rile up the internet and send the director scurrying to Twitter, where he promised to redesign their vision of the Sega character to better match fan desires. It was both proof of how deep the public investment in these bits of IP can be and evidence of how confusing it is to get a handle on the intended audience for these movies. Sonic the Hedgehog sure looks like a kiddie flick, so why the apologetic catering to adults insisting their childhoods were being ruined?
Detective Pikachu comes from Goosebumps director Rob Letterman, and it’s absolutely a children’s movie, one in which the humans are as broadly cartoonish as the depictions of cartoon creatures. But the filmmakers also seem aware that a sizable chunk of their audience will be adults who grew up on Pokémon, who are curious about or seeking comfort from the prospect of childhood artifacts reborn through the latest in motion capture technology (paired with, for some reason, 35 mm film). And it’s those viewers that the film’s calculated combination of earnestness and air quote self-awareness seems intended for — a combination that's as effective and numbing as a shot of novocaine.
The movie portrays its Gen Z hero less as a character than as a cluster of emotional voids. Tim is a morose 21-year-old who was raised by his grandmother because his father was essentially an absentee parent; he’s given up his dreams in favor of a desk job in the small hometown that all of his friends are moving away from. He might as well have been engineered out of that Steak-umm thread, which was the work of an account built with the help of a software service that allows advertisers to target susceptible social media users. Who is the drifting, isolated Tim Goodman going to connect with if not, semi-ironically, a brand?
Specifically a cute, cuddly brand that may not actually be a person, but does an adequate impression of one in the voice of a wisecracking A-list actor — a brand that’s ready and willing to serve as a counterweight for all those familial failures and professional disappointments. Pikachu, Pokémon, and its accompanying merchandise will never fuzzily fill in the gaping holes in our hearts and in the social fabric, but at least they can offer up a multiplex fantasy about how much they care. ●