My Review of Pokemon: The First Movie!

Hello there! Welcome to the world of adaptations! My name is Naru! This world is inhabited by creatures called Pokemon, who live in harmony with the humans who capture and train them! For some people, Pokemon are pets. Others use them for fights. For others, Pokemon are used for scientific testing, stored in suspended animation in large glass tubes while individuals far less ethically inclined than myself attempt to use them to perfect the art of cloning. This may not include you, an innocent and unassuming ten year old of indeterminate gender… Seriously, what are you, a boy or a girl? Anyway, one particular scientist wanted nothing more than to use cloning to bring back his deceased daughter… Because it worked so well for Shou Tucker… So they went on an expedition, found a fossil of the ancient Pokemon Mew, and while the artificial soul they created for little Amber may have faded away, after several failed experiments(which now exist in the wild as Dittos), they eventually succeeded in combining Mew’s DNA with that of a human’s to create a new Pokemon, the creatively named Mewtwo.

But the ability to think elaborately and ponder one’s own existence apparently does not bode well for the young lab subject, who doesn’t take his imprisonment and subjugation lying down. He blows the place up, kills everyone, and after some ill-advised soul searching with the leader of Team Rocket, he decides to strike out on his own and prove to the world that cloned Pokemon are not only superior to real Pokemon, but that they’re completely independent of their human captors! He does this by taking over an island close to a popular port, building a base, and perfecting the cloning technology that was used to create three friends he can no longer remember the existence of. He employs a Dragonite that he met… somehow… to send out fliers advertising an event for only the best and brightest pokemon trainers in the immediate area to attend! He creates a massive storm to separate the real challengers from the… Well, let’s not beat around the bush, corpses… But by mistake, he also winds up bringing in Ash Ketchum, a trainer from Pallet Town, and his friends along for the ride! Will their main-characterness get in the way of his perfect evil plan, or will Mewtwo become the real reason Ash never turns 11?

If you’ve ever seen the original Pokemon series, it would be fair to say that it was a low quality affair at best, and animation was one of the many things that you couldn’t really call it’s strong suit. It was passable enough during battle scenes and the few repeated animations, such as Ash’s trademarked hat turn, but for the most part, the production company Team Ota kept costs low, relying on the lacking standards of child viewers to keep the project simple and inexpensive… Or, that’s what I’m assuming they did, but they didn’t have that the rights to that excuse when they made Berserk. Yup, the Pokemon people animated Berserk. At it’s worst, the series was embarrassing to look at, particularly in the early years. Most of the budget clearly went to visual effects, like the lighting effects of Pokemon being captured, Pokemon evolving, and certain intense battle scenes. It wasn’t badly directed or anything, as it was more than serviceable enough for young viewers, speedlines and other tricks are used more or less effectively, and the motion that occurred on screen was never wasted. There were a few too many dialogue-heavy staticky scenes, and I can tell you from a recent rewatch that the animators did get noticeably lazy in the middle of the Kanto arc, but it was fine for what it was.

Having said that, this movie was exactly what the anime analogue of a long-running anime should be… A giant step up in budget and quality control. The movie goes to a lot of really dark places, so appropriately enough, there’s a darker palette at play, and a far more frequent use of shadows than even the spookiest of episodes. There are a few moments that look to have had as low a budget as the series, particularly with one of the earlier scenes of Ash, Misty and Brock stopping for a lunch break, but when it’s called for, the animation can get surprisingly fluid at times. There’s also quite a few shots incorporating CG, and yeah, they stick out like a sore thumb, but since the movie came out in 1999, we can give it a pass on that. It exercises a much better balance between the two styles than many of the newer movies, which use CG to such lavish degree that the standard animation has to suffer to compensate. It’s so effective over-all that with help from the soundtrack, certain scenes can feel unbelievably harrowing or at some points even creepy. For example, in the scene where Ash and his friends first arrive on New Island(yeah, they call it that), and are greeted by Mewtwo’s assistant, the atmosphere is so warying that you don’t know WHAT’s about to happen.

And speaking of the music… Well, it’s a bit bipolar. There are two sides to it, the soundtrack and the score, and they clash even more than the fighting Pokemon do. The score, for what it is, is great. It’s not your typical collection of Pokemon background instrumentals, albeit scaled up to better portray the higher stakes and more epic nature of the story. Even when listened to out of context, these tunes convey very clear emotion, so I don’t think I should have to tell you how effective it all is in context, whether you’re hearing it in the movie in real time or on it’s own terms on the extremely rare Score CD, and you have the actual events of the movie to pair it to. Quite a few of the tunes have an almost Danny Elfman-like quality to them, and I don’t mean in the bouncy Springfield-like kind of way… It’s more like what you’d hear from him in a Tim Burton project, with that sense of mystery and wonder guiding you through an otherwise bland and formulaic story. Some of my personal favorite tunes involve Birth of Mewtwo, which I believe only plays during the often-excluded origin story of the title character, the exciting track Freeing Charizard, and the bell-chorus/greek choir combo in Three on Three.

The Soundtrack, on the other hand… Woof. I’m going to start by saying that it’s not QUITE as dated as the soundtrack to the Digimon movie, but that’s mostly because the songs that actually got crowbarred into the movie are all from no-name artists who might as well have died in the nineties, for all the world would ever care. Seriously, I’ve met modern day Hanson followers who have no idea who M2M ever was. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true, I mean, Christina Aguilera and one of the Spice girls made it into the closing credits, which had four different songs jammed so tightly together that they actually kinda wound up bleeding into each other. I’ll admit that I’m a fan of the Billy Crawford version of the first Pokemon theme song, so sue me, it sounds awesome, and it was a fitting choice for the first real Pokemon battle Ash has in the movie, but it goes downhill from there. Artists like Brittney Spears and N’SYNC were lucky to get away with their dignity intact, somehow escaping with their least known songs being listed as “Inspired by” on the CD(Yeah, right, Soda Pop was based on the Dept. Store health drink, gimme a break), but perhaps nobody comes out as badly as Blessid Union of Souls, who’s track “Brother my Brother” has become synonymous with the film’s absolute worst moment.

And yes, it’s the American Pokemon release, done by 4Kids, so what are you really expecting me to say about the dub? I mean, I’ll give it this, as bad as it was, it’s considered The Glory Days now, especially when compared to the newer dubbing efforts. It’s bad, but then again, it was always bad, and there’s no real difference between this dub and the TV series dub. There’s still lame jokes and obvious rewrites, there’s still lines of dialogue that misidentify various Pokemon, such as calling Pidgeot Pidgeotto and Scyther Alakazam… No, I’m not making that up… But for a show that always ignored it’s own logic, these screw-ups are hardly anything new. The original cast is still present, with voice acting legends Veronica Taylor, Rachel Lillis and Eric Stuart voicing at least half a dozen roles together, and of course Ikue Ohtani’s still voicing Pikachu. Phillip Bartlett does an awesome job as Mewtwo, having also played the character in Pokemon Live, although he doesn’t appear to have any other anime roles to his name. So yeah, the writing and translating is your typical Pokemon fare(save for a dumb Viking joke that not even the series would stoop to), and the acting’s also predictably decent. It’s difficult to find the original sub track, but trust me, it’s worth the hunt.

When I was younger, the fact that there was a Pokemon movie coming out was a huge deal. The series and games had been huge for years, the card game was so lucrative that it drew accusations of basically being a form of childhood gambling, it was an even bigger trend than Pokemon Go is now, and I can personally attest that it was a major part of my childhood. Fuck childhood, it bled into my teen years, and I was straight up obsessed. It took over my life to such an extreme degree, and yet I never saw the first movie in theaters. Nope. I waited for it to come out on DVD, at which point I didn’t even buy it, I rented it. Why was this the case? How could such a forgiving, loyal pokefreak like myself give up the chance to see his favorite cartoon, western , eastern or otherwise on the big screen, and then not even bother securing a cpy for himself? I don’t know. I seriously don’t know. I have no recollection whatsoever about what it was that made me turn my nose up at the idea of seeing this movie in theaters. Did my parents refuse to pay theater costs to see something we could see for free on TV? No, because we saw the second movie in theaters.

Also, both movies gave out promo cards, and I distinctly remember having very low standards, so… What the Psyduck? I can only imagine that it was one of two things… Either I thought the trailers looked lame, which is entirely possible when you consider how I’ve spent most of my life taking trailers way too seriously, so I could have just looked at 4Kids’ advertisement campaign and said ‘no thank you.’ More likely, or perhaps even in conjunction with that issue, I might have gotten pissed off about how the title was a blatant rip-off of Empire Strikes Back. Like, ‘if this movie’s as lazy as it’s title, I don’t want any part of it.’ Either way, I eventually did watch it on DVD, rental of course, and to my great shock, yeah, I had no urge whatsoever to purchase it. I know it has a lot of nostalgic value to a lot of people, but there’s a good damn reason that it’s tied with 4Ever for lowest critical score on Rottentomatoes. Honestly, I think the first time I ever purchased a physical copy of it might have been the one I bought this week for reviewing purposes. Keep in mind, this came out around the time that I thought Tim Burton created the superior Planet of the Apes movie.

First of all, out of all the reviewers who’ve torn this movie to shreds(and there’ve been quite a few), I don’t think I’ve seen anybody call attention to just how badly executed the story is. Right off the bat, we’re told everything there is to know about the titular character and primary antagonist, Mewtwo. We’re told about his creation, his life with Giovanni, and depending what version you’re watching, we’re even shown a part of his past that he doesn’t remember. This was a terrible idea, because not only does it ruin the possible mystery of his character, it takes focus and screen time away from the actual main characters, who are introduced in what can only be described as the third(or fourth) intro portion of the first act. Had Mewtwo’s past been kept shrouded in mystery for the first half of the movie, and fed to us in snippets as each fact became relevant(IE, his history with Giovanni could have been glimpsed when Team Rocket heard their bosses name on a computer), it would have improved the film tenfold. Of course, going back to that example, his history with Giovanni was entirely pointless, aside from the connection it made to the series.

And speaking of the first act, I’d also like to call attention to the fact that this movie doesn’t even bother trying to follow the basic three-act structure. Any movie, regardless of audience, is supposed to have a distinctive beginning, middle, and end, with occasional artistic diversions made for the sake of deliberately changing the norm and challenging the viewer. There are directors who specialize in this, such as Quentin Tarrantino and Christopher Nolan, but even when it comes to their non-linear story-telling styles, the final product can still be broken down into three distinct acts. This is one of the major reasons you can’t approach screenwriting with the mindset of”This happens, then this happens, then this happens, then this happens,” and that’s what about seventy percent of this movie amounts to. The first thirty percent, which I GUESS you could call the first act, is just a long string of introductions to various elements of the story, only the fourth of which has anything to do with the actual protagonist. Not only is the villain’s backstory AND motus operandi revealed first, giving it a feel of heavier important, but Ash and Friends also take a back seat to an entire sequence who’s only purpose, as I mentioned before, is to connect the film to the series. Who are we supposed to be rooting for, again?

The second and third acts, if you can even call them that, bleed together into one long scene that takes place more or less in real time. I guess you could kind of separate the storm sequence and the introduction of the three other trainers who were able to make it to the island as a second act, but it’s a brief one that doesn’t leave much of an impression until Mewtwo once again hijacks the movie for the extended third act. Honestly, though, the single biggest flaw in the movie is just how hypocritical and non-sensical Mewtwo’s plans really are, and if the film had been paced and structured better, we wouldn’t have had so much time in between his appearances to THINK about how little sense it all makes. Smarter execution could have amplified the emotional weight of his story, especially if the two major tear-jerking moments of the film had been juxtaposed against each other, with one happening in real time and the other happening afterwards as a flashback, making the conclusion of Mewtwo’s character arc… Because trust me, he’s the only character in this stupid movie who HAS an arc… More effective on a more emotional level. Instead, the tragedy that ends this conflict just feels like a ridiculous ass-pull.

And yeah, I hear what you’re saying… It’s the first pokemon movie, obviously there were going to be some flaws. The writers likely weren’t used to translating the pacing and structure of a TV episode into the higher demand of a full length movie, and I’ll admit, that does play a huge factor in why this movie just doesn’t feel right. Their approach would improve greatly with future movies, even if said projects went downhill in many other areas, but this first movie is structured like an episode of the show… You do a brief introduction of where everyone is, usually with the assistance of a narrator, and then the plot is revealed, which takes up the rest of the episode. Or, in this case, the movie. This isn’t an entirely negative change, as the extended run time allows certain scenes to run way longer than the limits of TV would normally allow, making several action set pieces feel more intense, like Ash and friends struggling to survive the storm and reach new island, or an entire room full of Pokemon trying to either fight or flee from a hoard of Mewtwo’s flying Pokeballs, which can somehow capture other Pokeballs.

So yes, the idea of this movie being an extended episode of the series can be sort of a double edged sword, at least in these respects. But even having said that, the argument falls flat when you look at just how stupid this movie is, and how many obvious mistakes it makes. Sure, the series was never what I’d call well-written, but most of it’s dumbest aspects come from the characters themselves being fucking idiots, from Team Rocket’s frequent failures to our heroes not being able to recognize them, to Ash’s constant failures to capture almost any Pokemon he had the opportunity to catch. Oh, you don’t wanna trade your Tauros? You have fucking thirty of them! And go back to pick up Pidgeot! Sorry, irrelevant, but I’ve been sitting on those rants for a while. Anywho, the mistakes made in the movie are a lot more obvious and in some cases just impossible to explain. Some of them are even more inexplicable than the questions of how Mewtwo, a freaking Pokemon, was able to build or acquire a massively technologically advanced base without anyone noticing, how he has the ability to brainwash people and why doesn’t he just use this power to tell all the people in the world to stop being dicks, and so on and so forth. Seriously, imagine him mind-controlling Giovanni like that.

Back in the late nineties, the only thing more exciting to Pokemon fans than the upcoming movie was the soon-to-be released second generation of Pocket monsters. The movie, brilliantly enough, decided to capitalize on this by teasing us with three new critters, not including Togepi. The first two appeared in Pikachu’s vacation, an OVA that aired before the movie, but the one that was reserved for the movie was Donphan, which you would think means he would be a big deal… But no, he gets beaten faster than CM Punk in UFC. Great representation, there. After this, we go to the docks, where trainers want to brave the storm Mewtwo created to answer their invitations, and we get this strange, unnamed woman saying that the storm is some prophecy called The Winds of Water. This is of course not connected to anything, or ever referenced again. The main cast take a freaking canoe to cross the ocean in a storm that a giant ferry isn’t fit for, which is probably the only mistake that feels like it would happen in the show, and then the ending has the balls to tell us that fighting is wrong, and that pokemon aren’t meant to fight each other, in a movie based on a franchise that’s based entirely around the art of strategic combat. This is the textbook definition of having your cake and eating it too, and yeah, there’s a reason this is literally EVERYBODY’S biggest complaint about the film. I my opinion, though, it’s not even it’s worst problem.

Pokemon: The first movie is available stateside in a few different formats, and I’m not sure if there’s any way to buy a region 1 version of the original Japanese release, or even if there’s a version with the original Birth of Mewtwo scene attached to it. The old DVD releases have slightly more features than the better looking recent releases, and they can be found for much cheaper on Ebay than on amazon. It can also be found in a few different three-pack formats, included with the second and third movies, for an okay price. There are a ton of other entries in the franchise, including way too many seasons of the show, and over a dozen other movies, which I may or may not visit in the future.

When I bring up my issues with this movie in the company of other people, the most common defenses it gets aren’t the ones I mentioned earlier. The first one is the nostalgia argument, which… Okay, yeah, I kinda get that one. I liked Space Jam as much as the next child. You grew up with it, it’s important to you, so you’re forgiving of it. This actually leads into the other defense, that it’s a movie for kids. One day, little viewers who watch it now are going to have the same nostalgic reaction to it. Well, if all you’re looking for is something bright and colorful to keep your kids quiet for an hour and a half, this movie is fine. It’s innocent and inoffensive, and the fact that it’s moral is confused and hypocritical shouldn’t damage them seriously. But if that’s all you’re looking for, you wouldn’t be reading a review right now. The fact of the matter is that there ARE really good movies out there for children, movies that teach and enlighten while they entertain, and that don’t deserve to be lumped together with movies like this one just because they both reach the low standard of “It exists, and nothing offensive happens.” This movie may check those two boxes, but it’s also a soulless, lazy cash-grab that does nothing important for the franchise other than set up the far superior Mewtwo Returns, and even THAT’s just my opinion. Aside from that, it really doesn’t do anything to justify it’s own existence or continued relevance. I give Pokemon: The First Movie a 3/10.  

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4 comments
  1. I remember seeing this in theaters. Man, it was packed. I remember really looking forward to Mew since Mew is adorable.

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