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Defending Detective Pikachu's Controversial Pokémon Designs

With the release of the first Detective Pikachu trailer came a myriad of mixed reactions, a majority no doubt stemming from the designs of the Pokémon, which take their in-game appearances and add photo-realistic textures and other "real-life" details. The designs were polarizing, to say the least, some finding them fitting for the tone and approach of the film, while others have found the hyper-realistic Pokémon to be disturbing, artless or just plain bad, writing the look off as yet another Hollywood adaptation of a cartoon that simply adds realistic textures to the mix because it can.

Sure, these versions of everyone's favorite pocket monsters are jarring, and perhaps they're not the perfect way to bring the creatures into "real life," but Legendary and Warner Bros. have made some interesting and ultimately strong decisions with the designs. Perhaps they aren't all cute and cuddly, but maybe that's kind of the point.

A Happy Medium

The designs in Detective Pikachu are, more or less, a middle ground between the cartoony designs of the games and anime, a realistic approach that incorporates elements of the real-world animals that inspired the fictional creatures. They evoke the work of artist RJ Palmer, which makes sense since he was hired as an artist on the film. The result is that the Pokémon retain the basic shapes and traits of their original designs, but have realistic fur, feather and skin textures.

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Maybe Pokémon in real life is a bad idea to begin with, but if the designs had leaned too far into the cartoony looks, or if they went too far with the realistic approach (into uncanny nightmare-fuel territory) things would have been a lot worse. Ultimately, this is a nice in-between that works to make the Pokémon feel real, but keeps them cartoony enough for a talking Pikachu to not look off-putting from due to realism overload.

Putting The "Mon" In Pokémon

In the world of Pokémon, the titular creatures stand in for real-world animals. This appears to hold true for Detective Pikachu, where there appear to be no real-world animals in the film. It sounds obvious to point it out, but think about that for a minute in relation to people being disturbed by the creatures' designs in the film.

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In real life, not all animals are cute. Not every single wild creature is as adorable as the majority of Pokémon are (image search the Blob Fish, and you'll see what we mean), so it stands to reason, if Pokémon are taking the place of animals in their world, not every single one is going to look cute or aesthetically pleasing. Plus, let's not forget that Pokémon is short for Pocket Monsters. Were they to exist in real life, there would and should be a certain degree of terror in how some of them look, like with Charizard's design.

A Dash of Subversion

It's time to finally address the monstrosity that is Mr. Mime, perhaps the single most controversial Pokémon in the trailer. Yes, Mr. Mime's look in the film is beyond disturbing... but isn't that kind of the point? Mr. Mime is historically seen as one of the most bizarre Pokémon of all time, so of course he should be a horrifying monster in real life, complete with questionable textures (are the dodgeballs clothing, or his actual shoulders?!), a smooth and featureless face, gross "flesh hair" and disgusting peach fuzz.

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This adaptation of Mr. Mime is, in a word, ridiculous, and in being ridiculous, it may reveal the core approach behind the film's designs, an approach that fully embraces how wild these creatures would look like in real life. If this is the case, then we'll probably see a mix of designs in Detective Pikachu, some that perfectly translate the creatures into real life. and some that appropriately make horrifying monsters out of certain Pokémon. In the end, we'll see a subversive take that essentially says "Pokémon don't 100% work in real life, but here they are anyway in all their adorable and/or disturbing glory."

What We've Seen and Room To Improve

We can argue all we want over the design elements of Detective Pikachu that people don't like, but at the end of the day, the fact remains that we haven't seen the final product. In fact, we've only seen bits and pieces that are most likely unfinished. Just take a look at the above image; the effects don't quite look complete. The Bulbasaurs don't seem to be fully interacting with their environment and are all repeated models. The film is still quite a ways away from release, so there is not only room for improvement, there's time to make those improvements.

And perhaps that's the best argument in favor of the designs of Detective Pikachu, that we'll have to wait till the film comes out to properly judge the designs and effects. For now, however, let's just enjoy it for what it is: A mix between cartoony and reality with a touch of subversion and creative liberty.

Detective Pikachu releases in theaters May 10, 2019. The film stars Justice Smith, Ryan Reynolds, Kathryn Newton and Ken Watanabe.

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