So that Detective Pikachu movie was pretty good, wasn’t it? It’s not like I was expecting it to be a train-wreck or anything, but you can never be too sure with video game adaptations. Even when they’re decent, like that Silent Hill movie that shoehorned Pyramid Head into the plot for no reason, they still come with huge caveats that fans of the original games may not like them. I can count on one hand the amount of middling to decent video game movie adaptations out there, and even then calling them middling feels like I’m taking pity on them.
But not here! Detective Pikachu is actually a good movie on its own merits that any audience can enjoy. Realistically speaking, this is a movie that kids will love to watch, if only because they can see their favorite Pokemon up on the big screen, while hardcore fans like myself will feel wistfully nostalgic that we live in a world where the technology can accurately depict what a world of Pokemon would actually look like. Remember growing up and wishing that you had your own partner Pokemon and becoming best friends with it? The first half hour of this movie made me feel that hard.
Because of this, I decided to go back and watch a handful of the animated Pokemon movies just to put myself in the right frame of mind before watching Detective Pikachu. I saw Pokemon: The First Movie, which honestly doesn’t hold up nearly as well as I remembered, then I went back and saw Pokemon: The Movie 2000, which is honestly so forgettable that all I remember was there was a talking Slowking and one of the legendary birds (I’m pretty sure it was Zapdos) was screeching like a banshee. But then something strange happened when I rewatched Pokemon 3: The Movie, also known as Spell of the Unown; I was really enjoying myself. In fact, I think I like Spell of the Unown more than Detective Pikachu.
Spell of the Unown is a bit of an odd duck when stacked up against the rest of the Pokemon movies. While most of the other movies in the franchises have fairly uninspired plots, both Detective Pikachu and Spell of the Unown show more originality in their premises. Detective Pikachu serves as an introduction to noir while still having plenty of action and jokes for the kids, while Spell of the Unown is much more of a cerebral film that handles its drama well. Keep in mind that the movie isn’t as deep of a psychological deconstruction as Memento or Shutter Island, but it’s still impressive compared to most other multimedia kids franchises.
The main character of the movie isn’t Ash Ketchum, the immortal 10-year-old extraordinaire, but an original character named Molly Hale. Molly is a little girl whose father recently disappeared on an archaeological dig when he encountered the mysterious Pokemon Unown. You know, the Pokemon with 28 different designs that mimicked the alphabet that were absolutely useless in the games because they only knew Secret Power and no one ever wanted to catch all the versions of them? That one. Anyway, because Molly’s father goes missing, Molly is devastated, not helped by how her mother also disappeared when she was young as well. Because of this grief, Molly begins to isolate herself from the world, which leads to her accidentally summoning the Unown through tiles recovered from the dig, which begins to grant her wishes and desires. Her strongest desire, though, is to be with her papa again, so the Unown creates an Entei that sounds like her dad to act as a surrogate father for her, since her father often read her bedtime stories about Entei.
Does that sound like a Pokemon movie? Even compared to other kids movies, let alone Pokemon movies, the central themes of the movie deal directly with loss and coming to grips with the death of a loved one. Sure, Molly’s father isn’t technically dead since he just vanishes into the realm of the Unown, but Molly doesn’t know that. For all she knows, he’s dead and is never coming back. Tim Goodman has the same set up as Molly in Detective Pikachu, but his plot feels a bit more generic and safe. His dad vanishes and his mom disappeared earlier in his life, but the movie is more interested in fleshing out their troubled relationship while discovering who his father actually is. It feels like a story that we’ve seen before, turning Tim into a fairly underwhelming protagonist, defined solely by his relationship with his father’s Pikachu. In Spell of the Unown, without any ancillary characters, Molly is just a more compelling main character and antagonist.
Yes, the plot of the movie may center around Molly, but she also fills the role of antagonist very well. All of her dreams and desires are granted by the Unown, which seems fine at first, but things begin to unintentionally escalate very quickly. Yes, she has Entei protecting her, but the crystal palace she creates to push away the outside world slowly begins to grow in size and consume the countryside. To make matters worse, when Molly wishes that she had a mama too, Entei leaves the palace and kidnaps Ash’s mom to be Molly’s mother. And all the while, Molly is unaware of the suffering she causes others. She’s just focused on becoming happy again.
With that, we have stakes for Ash. In most of the Pokemon movies, and even in the TV show, Ash’s motivation is bare-bones at best. His character arc begins and ends with wanting to be the Pokemon Champion. The movies may add incidental plots about him, but those boil down to either generic chosen one narratives or Ash kind of just stumbling in to conflicts. But here, Ash has a solid motivating factor. His mom has been kidnapped and he needs to save her. He has a reason for venturing to Molly’s castle with Brock and Misty and going on this adventure.
Tim has a motivation for finding his father and solving the mystery surrounding his death in Detective Pikachu, but it all feels incidental and he himself doesn’t really want to be a part of it until the halfway point of the movie. Until then, his journey doesn’t feel as gratifying since it takes a while for him, as well as the audience, to become invested in it. But Spell of the Unown establishes these stakes early on gets the viewers on board much sooner, letting the audience become more invested in the quest that ash and his friends must go on.
And on this quest, Pokemon battles actually feel fun and compelling to watch, even if the outcome to the fights are irrelevant. When Ash and the gang infiltrate the castle, Molly wishes that she could be a Pokemon trainer like them. She falls asleep afterwards, so Entei takes her dream self and turns her into a Pokemon trainer. Her dream self conjures up Pokemon to fight Brock and Misty, and while they try their best, they can’t defeat Molly, not because they’re weak, but because Molly can’t be beaten. Entei and the Unown fulfill Molly’s wish; she’s a Pokemon trainer that will only know the fun of being a trainer, and what’s more fun than winning Pokemon battles?
The actual fight scenes aren’t all that impressive visually speaking, especially when you consider that the budget for this movie was significantly less than previous movies in the franchise. It honestly looks like an episode of the anime with just a slightly bigger budget. This is where I will 1000% admit that Detective Pikachu blows Spell of the Unown out of the water. Visually, Detective Pikachu felt like I was living in a world with Pokemon. The fight scenes were perfectly realized and were interpreted exactly how they would be in real life while the Pokemon designs in general were to die for. But I don’t really hold that against Spell of the Unown because of course technology will advance significantly in the 18 years since its release and deliver a stronger visual product. But even for its time, Spell of the Unown’s animation just feels pedestrian.
That is with two major exceptions. The film’s defining fight scene is when Ash’s Charizard swoops in to save Ash and fight against Entei, with the resulting battle being a real treat. Again, it’s not as impressive as watching the later movies and their faster and more frenetic action scenes, or even The First Movie’s Mewtwo battle sequence, but it’s still impressive nonetheless.
Then there’s the art design. The very first shot of the movie is a gorgeous shot of a field of flowers blowing gently in the breeze, something that we still haven’t really seen in a Pokemon movie. It’s quiet and serene, setting a tone for the intro before Molly’s life turns upside down. The creation of the crystal castle itself is also a pretty sight, with the crystals growing and twisting the more Molly’s mind becomes stressed and she has to face the reality of her situation, which makes the environment more thematically interesting than Detective Pikachu’s various cityscapes. The castle itself serves as a mirror for Molly’s mental state, giving the final sequence when the castle grows uncontrollably all the more weight and importance.
All of this is done through the power of the Unown, who are only presented as 3D models against a 2D world, giving them an eerie vibe of never truly belonging in our reality. They have no motives and no agenda, they just float around using their powers to fulfill Molly’s wish while singing their name in unison. They almost come across as a force of nature that are far more powerful than our heroes could imagine. The only way to stop the Unown is through the power of Pikachu, Charizard, and Entei attacking them in unison, and even then it requires the sacrifice of Entei, a legendary Pokemon, to fully seal them away.
Of course there’s a happy ending and everyone comes out of this for the better. Molly’s dad even comes back from the brink because death doesn’t exist in Pokemon! And this time he came back without the power of magic Pokemon tears! I’m kind of mixed on having Molly’s family reunited at the end, since it undermines the themes that the movie had about coming the terms with about death and loss. Sure, let’s end the movie where our main character decides to leave her palace of isolation caused by the trauma of losing her father… by having her reunite with her assumed dead father. Detective Pikachu has this same problem where Tim’s father is handwaved back to life because it’s a kids movie and we can’t have any dead parents in our Pokemon movie. Both movies bungled their ending, but it’s still easy to look past both movie’s endings when the trip getting their was exciting and engaging.
I’m not saying that Spell of the Unown is a flawless masterpiece, but it handles its themes well while still presenting an entertaining movie that’s far better than anyone ever would have expected. When compared to Detective Pikachu, while both movies tackle the themes of loss the importance of connecting with others, I feel that Spell of the Unown addresses it a bit better. Both movies are good, but Detective Pikachu plays it relatively safe with its characters and story. There’s no one in there that truly stands out as being an interesting or unique character outside of Ryan Reynolds really just being himself, and that wears its welcome by the end of the movie. By comparison, Molly stands out as being one of the more interesting and well written characters in the franchise, right alongside top boy N from Black & White.
If you haven’t seen Spell of the Unown recently, I definitely recommend giving it a watch. Whether you’ve seen it or not, it’s an interesting and more darker part of a franchise that is normally known for its goofy and inconsequential tone that deserves a re-examination. It’s at least better than the 21% it has on Rotten Tomatoes and fans of the franchise that may or may not have heard about it can give it a chance and see why I think it still holds up over 18 years after its release.