As of right now, Avengers: Endgame is continuing to demolish box office records, three more Star Wars films have been announced, and there isn’t a parent in America that hasn’t had haunting dreams plagued with incessant chants of “Meeska Mooska Mickey Mouse.” Disney is home to four of the top ten highest-grossing media franchises, but many in North America would likely be surprised to learn that Disney isn’t at the top of the food chain – and not by a considerable margin, either. Its highest performing property, Winnie the Pooh, sits at number three, a whopping $15 billion behind the adorable pocket monsters from Japan, Pokémon, who reign comfortably as the highest-grossing media franchise of all time.
But in North America, the franchise is still largely a niche interest for a number of reasons. Could Detective Pikachu help boost Pokémon’s popularity in the U.S. on a permanent basis?
Pokémon Has An Aesthetic Not Yet Embraced In The U.S. Like In Japan
Explaining the Pokémon phenomenon with someone that lives in the United States and wasn’t a child in 1998 is difficult, and adult fans of the franchise are under constant scrutiny by the generations that came before as well as many of their peers. When Nintendo unleashed Pokémon Red & Blue for the Game Boy to American players in 1998, it also brought along the broadcast of the Pokémon anime series, with the highly successful trading card game following in 1999. If you haven’t stuck with the franchise through the decades that followed, you could be forgiven for believing the popularity of Pokémon lived and died in the 1990s. But you’d be wrong.
In the United States, animation (especially something as painfully adorable as Pokémon) is often viewed as something solely for children. As players of the games grew older, many of them said goodbye to their Pokémon companions and instead shifted their focus to more “adult” geared content. It’s common in American culture to develop a “too cool for kid’s stuff” attitude in the teen years. By contrast, Japanese culture tends to place a higher value on animation and it maintains popularity regardless of age demographics. The Japanese also have a cultural affinity for the quality of cuteness. There’s even a word for it: “kawaii.” So while a number of things factor into Pokémon not yet gaining mainstream popularity in the U.S., the cultural differences certainly factor into it.
The Franchise Got Left Behind In American Video Games
Take, for example, the general view of video games in America, particularly “kids” games. Video games are what may have skyrocketed Pokémon into the public consciousness, and outside of officially licensed merchandise, video games are at the heart of Pokémon’s financial success. However, video games, and more specifically, the Nintendo properties, are often viewed as childish. As a lifelong fan of the creatures, I’ve lost count how many times someone has said in surprise, “People still play Pokémon?” when I wear my proud “Macho Man Squirtle” enamel pin. And I can’t begin to describe the stares my girlfriend and I got when we made our very own Build-A-Bear Squirtle and Eevee.
Compared to other classic childhood characters that have a sense of permanence in pop culture like Mickey Mouse or Wonder Woman or Winnie the Pooh, Pokémon (namely, Pikachu) is still relatively new. The average age of a Pokémon video game player is somewhere around 30, meaning they’re part of the generation that discovered Pokémon as children. The generations that came before are either aware of the phenomenon because of their children or missed the handheld gaming boom entirely. That is, until 2016.
Enter ‘Pokémon GO’
Before Detective Pikachu, the greatest surge in public consciousness since Pokémon’s first introduction was with the advent of Pokémon GO when over 500 million users downloaded the app. Publicly playing on a Gameboy or Nintendo DS as an adult is something many people may not be comfortable with (or can justify the expense), but just about everyone has a phone.
Pokémon GO’s mobile app was not only a fun and interactive way for fans of Pokémon to connect with one another, but it was also a covert way for people to play a “children’s game.” During the height of its popularity, I visited family for Thanksgiving to find my nearly 50-year-old aunt taking a long walk after dinner in order to play Pokémon GO. She’s never seen the anime, thrown a card, played a video game, or watched one of the films, but I’ll be damned if she wasn’t an avid and obsessed Pokémon GO player.
Handheld gaming systems are where Pokémon have lived and been the undisputed champions of since their introduction (Sorry, Mario), even while viewed as less-than within their own genre compared to console and PC games. The entire culture of American video gaming has shifted with the advent of live-streaming, favoring first-person shooting games or high fantasy battling. Pokémon had all but been excluded from this phenomenon, given the games are predominately independent adventures. Pokémon GO allowed the franchise to stay relevant, and the game is still going strong, reporting a 35 percent profit increase in December 2018 compared to the entire earnings of 2017.
But even with Pokémon GO, the experience is still completely individualized play. For most people, memories of sharing controllers and having friends or older siblings “beat the hard level” is a vital part of video game nostalgia. Pokémon, however, is a totally solo adventure. There’s no real way to have a communal experience playing Pokémon on a three-inch screen. The community of Pokémon fans was built by a shared love of the game, occasional trading/battling, and shared strategies. Detective Pikachu will be the first time that Pokémon fans will be able to go on a shared adventure together.
Will ‘Detective Pikachu’ Finally Put Pokémon On The Map In The U.S.?
Could Detective Pikachu be the thing to help Pokémon reach the pop culture supernova status in America of other properties like Harry Potter, Star Wars, or Marvel? The pocket monsters successfully go toe-to-toe with merchandise and video games, but Pokémon lacks the one thing that skyrockets fandoms quicker than anything else in America: a live action movie.
Of the eighteen theatrically released Pokémon films available, all of them are animated. The highest-grossing in the franchise was Pokémon: The First Movie, the first film released during the American Pokémon explosion in 1999. Yet, it’s only the 24th-highest-grossing traditionally animated feature film in the United States, and doesn’t even crack the top 50 when you include computer-generated animation.
Movies reign supreme in America, regardless of how popular a source material was before its cinematic adaptations. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios is not designed to look like the books; it’s meant to transport viewers to the cinematic universe they’ve fallen in love with. Marvel toys are no longer designed to imitate the comics; they’re modeled after the actors playing the characters in box-office hits. America loves their movies, and the fact that Pokémon has somehow still maintained relevance after all of these years without a cinematic universe to back it up is more than impressive; it’s downright impossible to believe.
This weekend is huge for Pokémon fans, as Detective Pikachu has finally gotten a CG/live-action hybrid adaptation. Armed with America’s sarcastic sweetheart, Ryan Reynolds, voicing the titular electric mousecat we all know and adore, and the painfully adorable (or horrifying – I’m looking at you, Mr. Mime) character designs, the box office for its opening weekend looks to land anywhere between $50-75 million. The combination of celebrity star power and palatable presentation of live-action may very well be the thing that finally ignites the spark for Americans to finally embrace what overseas audiences have known all along: Pokémon is more than just adorable…it’s awesome.
Detective Pikachu is in theaters now. Get your tickets here.