Despite its Box Office Success, Detective Pikachu Failed at This One Thing

The Pokémon franchise is the most successful media franchise in history, having brought in over $100 billion in revenue since its debut in the mid-’90s. The series has expanded to cover all sorts of entertainment avenues in its nearly 30-year run. Pokémania first set in with the original games – Pokémon Red and Pokémon Blue; or Red and Green in Japan – and it quickly became an international sensation with the anime television series, which centered on the hero Ash Ketchum, his partner Pokémon, Pikachu, and his friends Brock and Misty.

With new seasons and iterations of the anime constantly being released, in addition to the dozens of new Pokémon video games that have been released over the years, the series still has an incredible grasp on pop culture on a worldwide scale. It has also brought in billions in revenue through its trading card game, mobile games like Pokémon Go, and the endless array of merchandise it has produced.

Yet, despite this success, there has only ever been one official live-action Pokémon adaptation; this came in the form of Detective Pikachu, the 2019 film produced by Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros, which starred Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith and Kathryn Newton. Though this film was a box office success, it was far from the smash hit that you might expect the most successful franchise in history to produce. Here’s why:

Detective Pikachu was the Highest-Grossing Video Game Movie

When Detective Pikachu was released in 2019, film adaptations of video games were still a risky bet. There had yet to be any truly great video game movies, and there were even fewer that could be considered box office hits. After high-profile failures like Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft and Tomb Raider in the years preceding its release, Detective Pikachu seemed to turn the tide a bit.

In North America, the film opened with $54.4, which was the biggest opening weekend for any video game movie produced to date. Interestingly, it still failed to top the box office that weekend, as it was outperformed by Avengers: Endgame, which was in its third weekend of release.

Domestically, Detective Pikachu went on to gross a total of $144 million, which made it the most successful video game movie to date at the North American box office. In the years since, it has been surpassed by the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog, Uncharted, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie. Globally, however, Detective Pikachu fell $10 million short of the box office total of 2016’s Warcraft, with $428 million compared to $438 million.

With all this in mind, Detective Pikachu was considered to be a decent, though far from groundbreaking, success. It received generally positive reviews as well, with critics landing at a 68% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and audiences giving the film an A- on CinemaScore. The film was far from being one of 2019’s highest grossing films – the top nine movies of the year all passed the billion dollar mark worldwide – but, with a $150 million budget, a global gross of about $430 million was still a win for the film.

Related: The 10 Best Pokémon Movies, According to Rotten Tomatoes

It Doesn’t Capture the Magic of Pokémon

While Detective Pikachu was a success, it is still a bit of a mystery why it was not the massive box office win that it had the potential to be. There are a few key reasons that this can be attributed to, though they ultimately boil down to the same thing; Detective Pikachu failed to capture the overall atmosphere of Pokémon that made people fall in love with the franchise in the first place.

At its core, Pokémon is an adventure series, as the player sets out on their own journey to catch and train their own team of partner Pokémon, completing the various Gym challenges and usually stopping some sort of villainous organization along the way. Nearly every mainline Pokémon game follows this outline, as does the Pokémon anime series.

While Detective Pikachu does incorporate some of these elements, such as a villainous organization driving the central conflict, it ultimately goes in a different direction with essentially everything else. This is because instead of adapting any of the mainline Pokémon games – or even taking a shot at adapting the adventure of Ash Ketchum from the anime – Detective Pikachu adapts one of the various spin-off games that was created for the Nintendo 3DS handheld game system. Instead of focusing on a new trainer’s adventure of catching and battling Pokémon, that story is a whodunit centered on a talking Pikachu that solves various mysteries and riddles.

Another crucial aspect of capturing the magic of Pokémon is the appearance of the Pocket Monsters themselves. In this respect, Detective Pikachu did a decent job, though its effectiveness really varies from mon to mon. Some of the cuter Pokémon like the titular Pikachu, as well as Bulbasaur, Cubone and Togepi made the transition to live-action pretty well, other iconic monsters like Charizard, Gengar, Lickitung and Ludicolo, however, are the stuff of nightmares – and not in a good way.

The result of this is that only some of the featured Pokémon actually feel like Pokémon, while many others only feel like weird CGI abominations.

Related: Best Stories to Adapt for a Live-Action Pokémon Movie

Could a Sequel Fix This?

Although it has been five years since Detective Pikachu was released in theaters, there has yet to be a sequel released. However, as of last year, Legendary was still in active development on another film. In March 2023, Chris Galleta was hired to write the Detective Pikachu sequel film, with Jonathan Krisel tapped to direct the movie.

More recently, star Justice Smith has spoken about the follow-up movie, offering a disappointing update by saying, “I have not heard of any movement. I mean, I know what was released online, but no one has called me.”

Assuming a Detective Pikachu sequel does actually happen, it could easily fix many of the issues that plagued the first outing. Firstly, by the end of the first film, the eponymous Pikachu is no longer speaking full-English with the voice of Ryan Reynolds, as Reynold’s character was separated from the iconic Pokémon by the psychic legendary Pokémon, Mewtwo.

This opens the door for a Detective Pikachu sequel to take the route of a more traditional Pokémon adventure, with any sort of mystery needing to be solved by the human characters rather than a talking Pikachu.

For fans of the Pokémon series, there seems to be some more optimism surrounding other Pokémon adaptations beyond Detective Pikachu. The Pokémon franchise has become increasingly partnered with Netflix over the last few years, as the streamer has become a home for the anime series, and it has even released new Netflix Original Pokémon shows like the wonderful stop-motion series, Pokémon Concierge.

Reports over the last few years have indicated that Netflix is in early development on a live-action Pokémon series that would bring Ash Ketchum and his adventures to life in a new way. If that series does come together, and it is able to connect with audiences in a major way, it could be a significant hurdle in the path of a Detective Pikachu sequel.

Stream Pokémon Detective Pikachu on Hulu.