The battles between Disney and Warner Bros. will define the next few years in Hollywood. The former is an all-consuming conglomerate that boasts the industry’s biggest franchise titles, including Marvel and Star Wars, and the latter is known as a filmmaker-friendly outfit with its own impressive arsenal of intellectual property. But WB has fallen behind Disney at the domestic box office every year since 2014, unable to overcome the combined might of the Avengers and the Jedi. Yet with Endgame concluding the current iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars set for a three-year hiatus after December’s The Rise of Skywalker, many think that Disney’s momentum might slow down a bit.
Enter Pokémon: Detective Pikachu. WB, in collaboration with Legendary Pictures, is hoping the first live-action adaptation of the popular creature-fighting series that became an instant phenomenon in 1996 can emerge as Hollywood’s next golden ticket. While the evolution of video games and trading cards into animated TV shows and movies has been flimsy and flawed in spots, it still carries massive commercial appeal.
The film follows 21-year-old loner Tim Goodman (Justice Smith) as he teams with his detective father’s Pokémon partner after his dad goes missing. But as it parades cameo after cameo of your favorite Pokémon, the journey plays out like a celebrity-packed episode of Saturday Night Live. It’s more like a “greatest hits” of your GameBoy-centric childhood, though one fueled by some excellent renderings of the creatures. Look, there’s Charizard! Oh, my god, Blastoise! A rough estimate would peg this movie as 90 percent Pokémania nostalgia and 10 percent exposition. Like Mewtwo, this thing was tailor-made in a lab—in this instance, as the perfect marketing ploy.
Detective Pikachu presents a broad statement about loneliness but never bothers to provide any texture to that theme before devolving into third-act CGI shenanigans. Ryan Reynolds’ motormouthed Pikachu resembles a PG-rated Deadpool as he delivers a steady stream of zingers that skew more toward the inoffensive Thundershock than the knockout Thunderbolt of its titular character. It’s an enjoyable 104 minutes that will fare better with Pokémon lovers than it will with the uninitiated; I walked away in a satisfied stupor, flashbacks of battling the Elite Four flooding over me. However, it’s important to note that the movie is aimed squarely at kids—the middle-aged critic sitting next to me at my screening walked out midway. Make of that what you will.
Still, Pokémon remains the highest-grossing multimedia franchise in history. More than 300 million Pokémon games have been sold worldwide, and the Pokémon Go mobile game earned nearly $800 million alone in 2018. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether or not Detective Pikachu lives up or down to its current 71 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. It is an easily digestible blockbuster built on a tried-and-true concept, and that’s likely all it needs to be to bring in big numbers. Last year’s sci-fi thriller The Meg plugged into the eerily consistent track record of shark movies to the tune of $530 million worldwide; Blumhouse Productions has cornered the market on low-fi horror flicks that quadruple their production budgets at the box office. Detective Pikachu should kick-start a similar pattern.
Warner Bros. and Legendary have immense confidence in the property—they’re already developing a sequel and have been discussing expanding it into an entire Pokémon Cinematic Universe. While Detective Pikachu may not wholly bind audiences to these specific characters, it does incorporate enough world-building and Easter eggs to hook fans for further adventures elsewhere. If the next entry in this series hews closer to the original Pokémon trainer battles of yesteryear, watch out.
Recent tracking numbers project an opening of between $50 million and $70 million this weekend, which could be enough to steal the No. 1 spot from Avengers: Endgame depending on how much the Marvel blockbuster makes in its third weekend. Based on social-media buzz and brand-name awareness, we’re expecting Pikachu‘s final opening tally to come out on the higher end of that projection. Though this is arguably the most jam-packed summer blockbuster movie season in history, the film’s kid-friendly vibe and millennial appeal could encourage repeat viewings. Admittedly, though, a $200 million domestic run will be challenging with John Wick: Chapter 3, A Dog’s Journey, Aladdin and Godzilla: King of Monsters all arriving in the coming weeks. In China, the movie is on track for a three-day opening of $50 million to $60 million based on pre-sales. However, that could be a low estimate, as movies arriving directly after event films such as Avengers: Endgame often post soft pre-sales numbers.
Is Detective Pikachu a good movie? I’d say it’s good enough. Yet its quality may be irrelevant when it comes to its box-office prospects. It might not be the $1 billion hit the studios are hoping for, but it will certainly earn enough to become one of Hollywood’s next big things.
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu hits theaters May 10.