Of all the ideas for a franchise any human being has ever had, Pokémon has made the most money. It is the most successful media franchise in history, estimated to be worth more than Barbie and Star Wars combined. Originally created by Satoshi Tajiri and inspired by his childhood hobby of bug catching, Pokémon has brought a lot of joy to countless people around the world (myself included).
By virtue of this success, Pokémon is many different things. It's taken a turn as multiple types of video games, a trading card game, Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, and even as a short-lived theme park. Basically, it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. This expansive history can make it difficult to figure out what made the idea so great. What exactly has drawn so many people to Pokémon for nearly 30 years?
Perhaps the most famous iteration of the franchise is the animated TV series. In fact, a new season starring a brand new protagonist just started airing in Japan, and it will be stateside in the near future. The show began in 1997 and has reached over 1,200 episodes and 23 feature films, so it's a little too long to analyze all at once. Luckily, in 2017 the 20th film released: Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!
Unlike its predecessors, this movie served as a reimagining of the series from the ground up. Specifically, it's a loose remake of the Pokémon pilot episode, “Bye, Bye Butterfree” and of Infernape's character arc from the fourth generation of the series (this time given to Charizard). It’s then all wrapped up with a unique ending and a few original characters. By design, it stands on its own as a fresh introduction to the franchise, as well as a speed-run of a couple of its greatest hits. It is, then, perhaps perfect for dissecting to try to answer what so many people see in this series.
Be warned, from this point on I will completely spoil Pokémon: I Choose You!
Starting with the beginning, we are introduced to a young boy from the small community of Pallet Town named Ash Ketchum. On his 10th birthday, he gains a Pikachu as his first Pokémon partner after sleeping through his opportunity to pick his starter for himself. The two don't work together well at first, but after Ash risks his life to save Pikachu, a lifelong bond forms between the two of them, and they are able to begin their journey around the country in earnest.
They get off to an auspicious start with a sighting of the legendary Pokémon Ho-Oh. This is by and large an exact retelling of the series pilot, which means the storyline reflects many people’s first introduction to the world of Pokémon. Already, there is a lot to like.
Ash's role as a normal kid with a big heart serves as an obvious window for a young audience to see themselves in the series. As children have always been the franchise's main demographic, this only makes sense. Pikachu's cool electric powers and adorable design make him an incredibly potent mascot, as well. And the framing of the emotional core of the series as the bond between kid and pet no doubt serves to make the characters both relatable and likable.
Continuing on, Ash makes friends throughout his journey, though rather than the iconic Brock and Misty, they are replaced with movie originals Sorrel and Verity. In any case, the feeling of camaraderie is much the same.
Ash catches a Caterpie, which eventually evolves into a Butterfree, and also takes in a Charmander who has been abandoned by its trainer for being too weak. After failing to beat this bully in a Pokémon battle, Ash begins to doubt his convictions, but he eventually confirms his kindness and love for all of his Pokémon friends no matter what. Eventually Ash's Butterfree falls in love with a wild Butterfree and tearfully leaves Ash to be with her. Charmander also evolves into a powerful Charizard, and Ash's faith in his friend is proven correct as he uses Charizard to defeat the bully who first abandoned him.
This all reaffirms the central idea that the bond between trainer and Pokémon is the most important thing in the Pokémon world, but it also more fully fleshes out what that bond means. Charizard shows that despite the amount of battling trainers do, their relationships are still meant to be based on love, not violence. Butterfree shows that Pokémon are allowed to live their own lives and are not fully defined by their relationship with their human partners.
The cool battles and adventures kid characters get to have with their magical pets is another big marketing point for the series and is obviously a huge piece of its success. It's exactly the kind of fantasy that a child can get lost in, half being a superhero and half getting a dog.
Most unique plot points of the movie relate to Ash's sighting of Ho-Oh. The rainbow bird leaves him with a magic feather that marks him as a potential chosen one called "The Rainbow Hero." After meeting with the three legendary dog Pokémon that serve Ho-Oh, and after being tested by and eventually defeating the mythical Marshadow, Ash sacrifices his life to save his partner Pikachu and dies, proving his worth as the Rainbow Hero. Luckily, his bond with Pikachu paired with a little help from Ho-Oh is enough to fully resurrect Ash and reunite the two. The movie then ends with the message that Ho-Oh is still out there looking for another kid to take up the role of the Rainbow Hero as Ash did, and that kid could even be you.
Pikachu's love for Ash bringing him back to life is obviously the culmination of the movie's love-themed messaging. It ties those ideas together well by taking them to their absolute logical extreme. Pokémon and their relationship with their trainers is portrayed as literally spiritual. It's like the ideal of love between a pet and their owner — the kind of bond that can only really exist in the imagination of a child.
The message that Ho-Oh is looking for a new Rainbow Hero is maybe one of the most important pieces to this puzzle, however. As the movie was in theaters, if you owned a copy of Pokémon Sun or Moon, you had the opportunity to get a free Marshadow and Ho-Oh for your own game. The message that you could be the next Rainbow Hero wasn't just a cute sign off; it was an advertisement for something the Pokémon Company would actually let you do if you also owned other Pokémon products.
The flaw in this approach to figuring out what makes Pokémon successful, of trying to find a single part of the larger franchise to dissect, is that Pokémon being a million different things is the selling point. It isn't just a movie, or even just a series of movies and TV episodes. It's not just a video game, or just a theme park, or even just a single idea. It can be a million different things at once. It can show kids a beautifully animated adventure and then actually deliver on the idea that they could go on a virtual version of it themselves.
Other franchises have been several things before too, of course. There are Star Wars toys and Barbie movies, and both have taken stints as video games. Pokémon, though, blends all of its different products together in a way that few other franchises do. That same movie was also released with a tie-in card for the card game: another gateway into a different thing that Pokémon could be. These special events, which are really just a form of cross promotion, are monumental in keeping Pokémon so successful. They are able to use every product to guide people to another product, which, while cynical, has been undeniably effective. It was never just a single thing or idea; it was a brand from the very start.
The idea of sharing Satoshi Tajiri's childhood love of bug catching in the form of a video game was a great idea, one which deserved to be successful. The idea of a show (and later movie reimaging) of the story of a young boy traveling the world on a quest to become a Pokémon master while making friends with people and pocket monsters alike was a great idea. The ideas of making Pokémon into a card game, a comic series and a toy line of stuffed animals were all great. But none of them alone could have been as successful as Pokémon. Go figure that the most profitable media franchise of all time is the one that has done the best job being a franchise, not just a single thing.
The idea of Pokémon means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If it meant any less, if it could only be one idea, then it wouldn't have deserved to be the very best.