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What 'Detective Pikachu' Got Wrong About Disability

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Editor's Note

This piece contains spoilers about “Detective Pikachu.”

Like many people my age, I loved Pokémon as a child. Ever since going to see the first movie in the cinema I had a rather heavy obsession with the video games, TV shows and toys. This adoration still persists in my adulthood, and although I am not so intensely obsessed, I would say it’s still among my favorite things.

When “Detective Pikachu” was announced, I was cautiously excited for it. Live action films based on video games have often been mediocre mush at best and laughably incompetent at worst. Then I saw the trailer. After the initial shock of seeing Pokémon in a more realistic environment, the look of the creatures grew on me. I felt they did well to keep true to their designs as well as placing them in a realistic world. And Pikachu was adorable, as is tradition.

I went to see “Detective Pikachu” a day after it was released in the cinema. For the most part I enjoyed the colorful, vibrant world, how the Pokémon translated into the live action setting, and the funny banter between Pikachu and the main character, Tim Goodman.

The story follows Tim in trying to find what happened to his father after a car accident, which sends him and his new partner Pikachu to explore Rhyme City, a rather unique place where humans and Pokémon live side by side. Rhyme City was founded by Howard Clifford after he developed a rare disease that put him in a wheelchair. He became interested in Pokémon and their abilities in order to perhaps find a cure for his disease.

Note: major spoilers follow.

This turns out to be a front as Howard actually intends to place his consciousness into a Pokémon, thus curing himself with a new body. Since Pokémon are powerful creatures, this is a huge step up, and Howard selects an immensely powerful Pokémon, Mewtwo. He also intends to do this for the rest of humanity, with neither the Pokémon nor the people’s consent.

I find this sort of narrative quite upsetting. “Detective Pikachu” suggests people with disabilities would go to any lengths to cure themselves, even if it ends up hurting others. In reality, there is a lot of strength to be gained from accepting your disability, learning to live with it and finding peace where you can rather than constantly fighting against it. I still struggle with self-acceptance after developing fibromyalgia, but found I became much happier with my situation once I stopped beating myself up and started listening to what my body could cope with.

Of course, if you have a disability where it is possible to fight and overcome it, you should do that if it is right for you and your condition. However, I feel society expects all people with all conditions to pursue that path, and it is often like hammering a square peg into a round hole. This assumption that every disabled person wants or needs to be “cured” can lead to questioning disabled people’s actions, judging them for not trying hard enough or accusing them of “giving up.” Unfortunately, I’ve been judged in this way, and it’s hurtful.

This isn’t the only problem with the villain of this movie. Howard is fascinated with the evolution of Pokémon and wants that for humans. He talks about how he wants humans and himself to reach “the best version of themselves,” as though this is impossible without an able body. You absolutely can become the best version of yourself and have a disability. These things are not mutually exclusive, and for the film to suggest they are is troubling. You can be a kind, generous, intelligent, creative, wonderful individual and have a disability. The best of us usually lies within, after all.

Not only that, but the disability motivation for the villain seems incredibly unnecessary. Pokémon are so utterly powerful in comparison to humans, a person could want to put themselves into the body of a Pokémon without having a disease or disability. Pokémon come in all shapes and sizes, but many can fly, are psychic, can breathe fire, have water cannons jetting out of their back and so on. It is such a step up that anyone could see an advantage of having such a body! Personally, stick me in the body of a Mareep, those critters are adorable. The motivation could easily have been for science, vanity, money or just plain power.

The film does depict the one who represents these ideas as the villain, so perhaps it is trying to say he is wrong to think this way about his body and other people’s, but there doesn’t seem to be any counter-narrative in the hero’s story to match it. It is also a shame that although Howard has built a successful, amazing, bustling, unique city despite his disability, that point is never brought up. Howard initially did an incredible thing, but it is never highlighted in such a way.

When Howard is defeated near the end of the movie, he falls from his wheelchair. Despite being rather capable beforehand, he is seemingly unable to do anything once his link with the powerful Mewtwo has been severed. Perhaps the device he places on his head has some nasty side effects, but this is just speculation on my part as it isn’t clarified in the movie. This suggests that he is weak and useless, and that he was right to think in the way he did, which is unfortunate.

Despite the troubling nature of the villain and his motives, I did enjoy “Detective Pikachu.” It was a fun watch, and dealt with a rather dark and complicated concept for a children’s movie, which I appreciated. The downsides of the villain were the biggest problem with the movie for me, and it would have been a stark improvement if the filmmakers had more awareness of disability issues before deciding on the plot.

Photo via Warner Brothers.

Originally published: May 17, 2019
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