Tentacle-Free Anime: "Pokemon: The First Movie" (1998)
- by Kazekun, 13 February 2017
Though we now live in an era where there is no longer any one anime that defines a generation of fans, it wasn't that long ago when such shows existed. From Akira and the anime boom of the late 80s/early 90s, to the Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z and the anime boom of the late 90s/early 00s. Today we're going to be discussing one of those. It's...
“We do have a lot in common. The same air, the same Earth, the same sky. Maybe if we started looking at what's the same instead of always looking at what's different, …well, who knows?” - Meowth
This week's review is a great example of what my schedule in life has been like. Back in November of 2016, Pokemon: The First Movie returned to theaters for a short weekend event. The first time it had been in theaters since 1999. I never got to see the film in theaters as a kid, instead being forced to wait for its VHS release which was right around my birthday. This time, however, I was able to go and experience the film in theaters, finally bringing full circle my loyalty to a show that had helped shape me as a kid.
Well it's certainly an interesting one. Personally, I like the film quite a bit. It introduced us to some new Pokemon of the second generation before they were officially released in the west and it also introduced me to my favorite Pokemon of all time: Mew. The cute little bastard. But all the nostalgia goggles aside, I do feel like the film holds up quite well even from a narrative point of view, even if it is still a cheesy kid's flick.
As the film starts out, we're introduced to Mewtwo; an artificial Pokemon created by man, a clone of the aforementioned Mew. We meet him as he's beginning to gain sentience and question his place in this world. The very same questions about existence that still plague mankind today. For a show like Pokemon, this is pretty deep stuff and is even amplified when Mewtwo lashes out at his human creators and on screen kills them all. Yes, the first Pokemon movie begins with a Pokemon committing mass murder.
From there things get off to a sort of standard beginning as we see Ash and company enjoying a sensibly small breakfast before another trainer challenges Ash to a fight. This has always been one of the more exciting openings for a Pokemon movie for me, as the battle coincides with the newly remixed movie version of the show's iconic American opening theme while also introducing us to one of the cooler 2nd generation Pokemon: Donphan.
The film moves along and we're given some pretty cool easter eggs throughout. We see Mewtwo's ties to Giovanni and Team Rocket, as well as his battle with Gary Oak – Ash's rival, which all of this is tied into in the TV show as well where we get to see the same fight from Gary's perspective. A nice little piece of continuity as the Pokemon films very rarely show any connectivity to the show.
I do, however, find it funny that when we meet the other trainers that play supporting roles in the film they all have near complete evolutions of all the Pokemon on their team, but when you look at Ash, Misty, and Brock's teams combined, hardly any of them are evolved. I'm not really sure why the writers and producers of the anime were so afraid to let the Pokemon of our main character's evolve. Sure, some of the certainly did. But it was always few and far between. Then again, there was much about that show that makes me wonder why the creators were so afraid of change.
We then get into the crux of the film's story and the exploration of the major questions put forth by the film itself: Is the artificial better than the original or are we all truly created equal? Mewtwo captures the Pokemon of all the trainers, and using the same technology as his creators creates quote-unquote “perfect and superior clones.” This then leads into the most dramatic scene of the film: The clones and the original Pokemon all battling it out in a bare-knuckle brawl that, if you were watching Pokemon at the time, is actually quite a bit more brutal than you're used to seeing.
I appreciate what this movie did by daring to ask big questions and even going so far as to actually explore those questions in a way that is, for Pokemon at least, quite raw and intense. Sure none of it is really that bad when you're watching it as an adult, kid's will definitely have a different experience, but if you look at it from the scope of a kids film that's trying to navigate the window between what a kid and adult can enjoy together, this does, in my opinion, do a pretty good job for what it is.
This all being said, however, there are obviously plenty of problems with the film as well. It can be quite heavy-handed at times. It's not exactly trying to be subtle in its message. There are literal Pokemon naming errors performed by the dub cast when a couple of Pokemon are completely misnamed by some of the characters. The story is incredibly fast-paced, and the ending commits one of the cardinal sins of storytelling: making our heroes completely forget the events of the film ever happened.
And none of this I bring up is without the opening Pikachu short film that I haven't discussed yet, nor the original deleted opening scenes of the film that never made it to the original U.S. release and would only be seen here as an extra added onto the DVD release of the sequel film Mewtwo Returns.
Discussing real quick the opening short film, Pikachu's Vacation: it's an iconic and fun little opening segment that sees Pikachu and bunch of the Pokemon from our main crew go have some fun at an all-Pokemon theme park where they meet up with some resident poke-bullies and get into a series of competitions to see which team is better. The actual story portion of this short is quite fun however scattered throughout are a series of acid trip quality animations that have literally nothing to do with anything and only featuring Pokemon on psychedelic backgrounds doing strange things. Why these were included? I haven't a clue.
And I'll go ahead now and discuss the deleted opening segment here, released as an extra on the home release for the aforementioned sequel film as its own thing, this short re-titled the Birth of Mewtwo, or the Uncut Story of Mewtwo's Origin is simply a 10-or-so-minutes showing Mewtwo as youngling talking psychically with a young girl, or at least the clone of a young girl named Amber who was an additional part of the cloning project put forth by Mewtwo's creators. He's also shown with younger versions of the clones for Bulbasaur, Charmander, and Squirtle that Mewtwo would later create in the feature film.
Ambertwo, as she is named, becomes a failed experiment and as Mewtwo is forced to say goodbye to his friend, he gains what is arguably his first true sentient feeling: pain. This whole short helps put a few things into perspective for the movie itself and is a very good addition to the film. Does the film require it? No it doesn't, but it can only be enhanced by it and that at least is a good thing.
Pokemon: The First Movie isn't what I would call a great film, but it's definitely not bad. I keep using the term “what it is” to describe the film, but really, as just a film, this isn't bad. It's really not. And kids need more good films to be able to watch, relax, and enjoy. And maybe, just maybe, actually learn something from. For me and for an entire generation of kids this was a cornerstone of our fandom growing up. Its messages weren't lost on us and I think plenty of us turned out alright because of it.
If Ash is always trying to become the very best, then the First Movie is the very best.
Final Score: 4 Cloned Pokemon out of 5
Is the first Pokemon movie a nostalgia trip or a genuinely good film? Let us know in the comments!