One weekend, too many years ago, I spent a night over at my aunt’s place. She didn’t have cable, but she had a VCR. Which meant I could watch any movie I brought with me when I was bored of doing dumb kid stuff. Not thinking ahead, the only video I brought over was Pokemon: The First Movie, my favorite at the time. I didn’t think it’d be a problem until I couldn’t sleep that night. In order to make it through the night, I ended up watching Pokemon: The First Movie five times in-between viewings of Superstar (which I saw three times) and haven’t seen it since.
In honor of Pokémon’s 20th anniversary, and the loophole that lets us review a decades old film if it gets a re-release, I decided to watch the film with a pair of fresh critical eyes. But the question at hand is whether or not the film is as “good” as l remember. Well, the fortunate news is Pokémon: The First Movie is indeed good.
Dumber, but good.
Pokemon: The First Movie
Directors: Kunihiko Yuyama and Michael Haigney
Release Date: November 6, 1999 (USA); November 1, 2016 (special event re-release)
When a group of scientists sucessfully clone an ancient pokemon known as Mew, the resulting super pokemon breaks loose and wreaks havoc. The super clone, Mewtwo (Philip Bartlett), now in search of a purpose, invites the strongest pokemon trainers to a mysterious island to battle him. Ash Ketchum (Veronica Taylor), together with his friends Misty (Rachael Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and Pikachu, meet Mewtwo’s challenge and soon figure out there’s more to this pokemon than they realized.
First things first, The First Movie is incredibly brisk. Choosing not to overstay its welcome (if you don’t include the Pikachu’s Island Adventure short), it instead tightly focuses on developing its central antagonist. Mewtwo themself is well defined with a clear existential crisis (as they try to clear the clouds of their mind, not so subtly represented by the storm they whip up with their powers), and it’s a greater deal of characterization than anyone else gets in the film. It’s such a well put together back story, in fact, it’s surprising The First Movie is able to explore as much thematic territory as it does. It ends up questioning the philosophy behind the Pokémon series in full as it briefly challenges the “fighting vs. battling” argument within the Poké world. The film doesn’t get as deep as I would’ve hoped, as the argument gives way to a hokey climax, but this amount of self-awareness is impressive for a children’s film.
The laser focus on Mewtwo may help the film’s pace within its short run time (as it rarely goes on tangents), but it’s hard to care about anyone else involved with the plot since they fail to get the same attention. Since the film assumes the audience has working knowledge of the Pokémon TV series, and it’s a fair assumption given the branding, Ash and his friends (along with Team Rocket, introduced into the plot in a Rosencrantz/Gildenstern, outsider looking in fashion) don’t really have a reason to be involved. Their usual schtick of wandering into a plot in motion may work for a TV series needing a fresh story every week, but it falls flat here. Along with introducing seemingly important ancillary characters (like the kidnapped Nurse Joy or the random lady who knows storms or something) only to serve no purpose, The First Movie fails to turn Ash into a compelling protagonist.
With no real personality of his own, Ash instead becomes a moral mouthpiece. His base love for his pokemon is exaggerated into a love for everything and grand declarations of peace. It’s a far cry from an Ash who, just minutes before, was willing to pit his pokemon against Mewtwo. The First Movie betrays its emotional themes with its own world, really. It’s greater desire to stop senseless violence goes against everything Pokémon is known for. So it’s okay to use your pokemon to fight when they use their abilities? Since there’s never a clear difference between how Mewtwo forces a fight and how trainers could force a fight, the overall moral is clouded. Rather than focus on, say, the friendship between trainers and their pokes (thus enhancing its narrative overall), the film goes with a generic message. It almost feels like a cop out.
But in the end, Pokémon: The First Movie makes up for its shortcomings with pure entertainment value. Once you get passed the cheesy dialogue (complete with puns and jokes that didn’t age well in the slightest) and the murky themes (which I give the film credit for attempting), there are plenty of rewards in store. A well written antagonist, slick animation, and a score that includes the ironically lovable “Brother Against Brother” song.
No matter what score I put here, it literally doesn’t matter. You love it, you hate it, you already had an opinion 18 years in the making. But it was great to confirm that I liked a good thing back then, instead of figuring out yet another product from my childhood was hot garbage. My critic brain may settle on “Good,” but my nostalgic one adds about 30 points.