Detective Pikachu and the case of the highest grossing media franchise of all time

Friday May 10, 2019


It made adults walk into lamp posts and kids throw sickies: now Pokémon fever is back. What’s the appeal?

When it was released in 1996, Pokémon made zealots of children. Desperate to catch ’em all (as the slogan goes), they would queue for hours, play truant from school (‘Pokéflu’ apparently), fight, steal and bankrupt their parents. Exasperated schools banned the trading cards; jittery parents fanned the flames of moral panic.

In November 1999, as the phenomenon reached its climax, Pokémon graced the cover of Time magazine; the accompanying feature described Pokémania, the fanaticism the game franchise inspired, as “a multimedia and interactive barrage like no other before it” and, less flatteringly, “a pestilential Ponzi scheme”. Eventually – outside Asia at least – Pokémon, like most children’s fads, faded from the mainstream.

“When I started my website back in 2003, Pokémon was dead,” says 30-year-old Jon Sahagian, editor-in-chief of the fansite pokebeach.com. “People in schools didn’t talk about it and scoffed at me and the few other fans who ever expressed any kind of interest in it.”

Yet Pokémon somehow continued to maintain a dedicated fandom; enough to see it estimated to be the highest grossing media franchise of all time. Now, with the release of Detective Pikachu, starring Ryan Reynolds, this month, the franchise gets its first ever live-action film. Not only is it expected to be a box office hit (and potentially the most successful film based on a video game ever), early reactions indicate it is cleverly positioned to appeal to both die-hard fans and those who don’t know their Squirtles from their Sobbles. The stage is set for Pokémania to return.

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