‘Detective Pikachu’: Pokémon, explained

Watch the trailer for “Detective Pikachu." 

In “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” humans and Pokémon live side-by-side in harmony.

Starring Ryan Reynolds as the voice of the titular Pokémon, the Warner Bros./Legendary film that opens Friday takes place in a world where Pokémon are already understood to be a part of everyday life, just like in the universe introduced in the “Pokémon” video games.

It’s a world that every “Pokémon” fan can appreciate, but the live-action film is pitched at an even broader audience of family moviegoers. And despite “Pokémon” being one of the biggest video game franchises around, not everybody knows what the difference is between a Pikachu, a Pancham and a Poliwag.

For those who didn’t grow up immersed in all things “Pokémon,” here’s a spoiler-free rundown on everything you need to know before seeing “Detective Pikachu.”


"Pokémon Red" and "Green" were the first games in the franchise.
(Associated Press)

What is “Pokémon”?

“Pokémon” is a multimedia franchise that launched with the role-playing videogames “Pokémon Red” and “Pokémon Green” for the Game Boy in 1996 in Japan. In the game, players assume the role of a kid who captures, trains, trades and battles with Pokémon on his quest as a Pokémon Trainer.

Making its U.S. debut as “Pokémon Red” and “Blue” in 1998, The Times initially dismissed the game as a gimmick while conceding it would likely appeal to kids.

“‘Pokemon’ preys on the obsessive-compulsive hiding in all of us, asking players to spend countless hours tracking down digital monsters for no other purpose than to collect and catalog them all,” The Times wrote in its 1998 review. “It will no doubt be a smashing success.”

Since then, it has become one of the most popular video game franchises ever. The “Pokémon” franchise has grown to include numerous sequel, remake and spinoff video games; an ongoing anime series that has aired over 1,000 episodes; 22 animated features; mobile games; a trading card game; toys and more.

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Pikachu and Ash Ketchum in a scene from "Pokémon the Movie 2000."
(Warner Bros.)

What are Pokémon?

Pokémon — short for “Pocket Monsters” — are the various creatures who inhabit the world introduced in the original game. Many live in the wild, while others live alongside humans.

There are many species of Pokémon that come in all shapes, sizes and types. Some Pokémon look a lot like whimsical versions of organisms (or objects) that exist in the real world, while others look a bit more otherworldly.

Most Pokémon don’t talk but instead communicate with sounds that resemble at least part of their name.

The original game launched with 151 kinds of Pokémon. Multiple generations of games later, the number of known Pokémon has grown to 809 (with more on the way).

What do Pokémon do?

Pretty much what most other living things do: Eat, sleep, play, evolve into another form after gaining enough experience points.

Different kinds of Pokémon have various special powers such as shooting water, breathing fire or singing songs that cause others to fall asleep.

In the world established by the game, “wild” Pokémon are the ones that have no owner. They live all around the world and can be caught by people using Poké Balls.

Charizard chases Pikachu in “Pokémon Detective Pikachu.”
(Warner Bros.)

What’s a Pokémon Trainer?

As mentioned above, Pokémon Trainers are the people who catch, raise, train, care for and battle with Pokémon.

Once Pokémon are caught, it’s up to the Trainer to look after their well being and it’s through all of the subsequent interaction that the bonds between Pokémon and their Trainers grow.

Trainers can also trade Pokémon with others, often to obtain a kind of Pokémon they’ve yet to catch on their own. Sometimes Trainers even have to let their Pokémon go.

What’s a Pikachu?

Pikachu is the name of a species of Pokémon that resembles a sort of electric mouse. They’re yellow, have red cheeks, a lightning bolt-shaped tail and the power to shoot electricity from their bodies.

Although not the most powerful Pokémon in the game, its cuteness made it a favorite among some players.

One of the main characters in the anime is a Pikachu and they are now the most recognizable Pokémon of the franchise.

A Pikachu parade in Yokohama, Japan in 2015.
(Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP/Getty Images)

Are they all named Pikachu?

Pikachu is the name of the species. Some Trainers give their Pokémon individual names but a Pikachu without a name will continue to be called “Pikachu.”

The Pikachu in “Detective Pikachu” and the Pikachu in the “Pokémon” anime are different, but both are called “Pikachu.”

What is “Detective Pikachu”?

“Pokémon Detective Pikachu” is a hybrid live-action/computer-animated movie starring Ryan Reynolds as the voice of the titular Pokémon who can talk to at least one human: Tim Goodman, played by Justice Smith. The live-action cast also includes Kathryn Newton, Ken Watanabe, Chris Geere and Bill Nighy.

The movie is based on a narrative-driven “Pokémon” spinoff game for the Nintendo 3DS called “Detective Pikachu” that was released in the U.S. in 2018. Yes, the game also involves a talking Pikachu that solves mysteries with his human companion.

What about that Pancham and Poliwag?

They’re actually not at all crucial for understanding what’s happening in “Detective Pikachu,” but a Pancham is a Pokémon that resembles a panda and a Poliwag looks like a tadpole (or pollywog) with feet. Both are pretty cute.

Twitter: @tracycbrown