It's my first exposure to Pokemon. Don't know why I hadn't checked it out before, to be honest. It's very much a show for the kiddies, but it's also the world's second-biggest media franchise based on a video game, after Mario. (They're both by Nintendo.) It was created by Satoshi Tajiri in 1995 and it's sold a truly ridiculous number of games. The anime, manga, trading cards, toys, books, etc. are technically just a spin-off, despite the fact that the number of anime episodes is heading for four figures and the number of movies is pretty scary too. If nothing else, it disproves the axiom that movies based on video games will fail.
The premise is simple. Pokemon is short for Pocket Monsters, which you can keep in a Poke-Ball (guess). "Pokemon trainers" fight each other with them, which can be collected and so give rise to the franchise's catchphrase "Gotta Bankrupt Your Parents In Order To Catch 'Em All." (Note to self: double-check wording.)
Personally I disliked the American dubbing, but I thought it had some emotional power and I liked the way that the story's themes could be interpreted as almost a subversion of the entire franchise.
The villain is Mewtwo, originally created by Ken Sugimori for the video games Pokemon Red and Blue. Personally I'd write his name as "Mew 2", i.e. he's a clone of an original Mew, and this film's first ten minutes is all about characterising Mewtwo as bad news. This gets sufficiently dark that the American theatrical release of the film cut those ten minutes entirely. Me though, I liked it enough that I flipped the movie's intended heroes and villains and was instead cheering for Mewtwo throughout most of the movie. We see his birth, cloned for lab experiments. We see his opinion of that. We see his psychic powers, which can flatten castles. He's doing bad things, yes, but he's letting rip on humans who are even worse and at this point it's hard to disagree with what he's saying.
"I was not born a Pokemon. I was created and my creators have used and betrayed me. I stand alone."
"Who am I? What is my true reason for being?"
We then jump to the movie's supposed heroes, who are far less interesting, rich and sympathetic than Mewtwo, not to mention being accompanied by far more annoying acting. The narrator deserves death. That cameo twat who challenges Satoshi to a Pokemon duel deserves worse. It's not all that bad, but listening to those two is like having acid dripped in your ears. It takes anti-genius even to screw up "oh no". Why are English-language anime dubs so bad?
Anyway, this movie's humans are doing all the usual hero things, but they're also living up to all the negative stereotypes against which Mewtwo is fighting. They enslave Pokemon. (The counter-argument that Pikachu and Satoshi are friends is a strong one, but I don't think we can assume that their bond is universal.) They derive pleasure from making their slaves fight. They regard themselves as the dominant species and aren't without racial prejudice towards their supposed inferiors. "No way! A Pokemon can't be a Pokemon master!" Even the word "master" is loaded, you'll observe. As for the battles themselves, I was mildly disturbed by the way that mentally dominated Pokemon would be pitted against each other, after which the losers would be claimed as prizes of the winners and absorbed into Poke-balls.
That's not the end of the dodginess. There's Pokemon cloning, picking up where those first ten minutes left off. A random Pokemon might be sucked into the machine and then half a minute later, a living duplicate will be sitting in a glass tube. This is in an empty lab. By accident. Is Pokemon life so cheap that this can happen as easily as someone leaning against a photocopier, with no one thinking twice about it? (The original's still alive, by the way... the life I'm thinking about is that of the newly created duplicate, now sitting in its tube as if it had been coughed up.)
This gives the movie a ton of unintended thematic depth. Mewtwo is a powerful, sympathetic character. Admittedly he's a megalomaniac who wants to kill everyone, including any Pokemon who's collaborated with the enemy, but that just makes him a more challenging and morally conflicted hero... for a while. However eventually he's spouting lines that sound a lot like neo-Nazi racial purity, e.g. "my super-Pokemon" (i.e. his souped-up clones) vs. "your spineless originals". If you're on my wavelength of cheering for Mewtwo, this is a seriously dark and even disturbing movie. Cool.
Against him are pitted a bunch of unlikeable hero figures, but also Satoshi and Pikachu. (You'll notice I'm using the original Japanese names. Obviously.) What's cool about those two leads is that they have an emotional bond so strong that it can justify corny speeches. "Some trainers have no fear. They follow their hearts. That is what will make them Pokemon masters." (Um, as opposed to, say, a love of violence by proxy and of enslaving lesser beings for your own private gladiatorial contests.) Anyway, what's so powerful about Satoshi and Pikachu is that they're friends. Sounds simple, right? It is. However in a movie whose themes include genetic experiments, slavery and uber-races, I found this childlike simplicity moving. They try to save each other. They try really hard. You'll have noticed that I was keeping a mental distance from the movie, but Satoshi and Pikachu pulled me in. They give the movie its emotional weight and they unwittingly help Mewtwo realise what he's been doing.
This movie has a moral, you see. It's powerfully portrayed, when we get the Pokemon clones hammering away at their own siblings. The two ducks are funny, but the Pikachu-Pikachu slapfest is slightly astonishing. However the dialogue is like a sledgehammer. I'm going to be generous and assume it's less painful in Japanese, but even so...
"Now I can see how horrible fighting is."
"A Pokemon's true strength comes from the heart."
This movie's greatest paradoxical achievement is its most dangerous plot point, which is so cheap and apparently lazy that you'd expect it to be a movie-killer. It was telegraphed earlier in burning letters of fire, so you knew it was coming. You'll be expecting to hate it... yet the movie has a strong reason for doing it, gives it a payoff and makes it work rather well.
I'll bitch some more about the English dub actors. They were best when they're doing accents, which add a colourful performance layer to distract from their limited line delivery. I liked the French mystic, was very mildly entertained by the pun-loving cat-Pokemon from the Bronx and freaked by the female Vikings. Crazy accents on those latter ladies. Really. However there's no escaping the hollowness of many bombastic line deliveries, or the way in which the mystery of the nurse gets thrown away by voice acting that de-emphasises it.
Oh, and there's one distracting thing about Pikachu, who only ever says "Pikachu", "Pika" or "chu" and so hasn't been redubbed from Ikue Ohtani in the Japanese. "Pika" doesn't mean anything particularly obvious, except for an eating disorder or a colloquial abbreviation for "nuclear bomb". (If you say it twice, though, it means "sparkly".) "Chu" though means "kiss", so if you speak Japanese you'll be seeing Pikachu pouring herself all over Satoshi and saying "kiss kiss kiss".
No, hang on. Apparently Pikachu's male, although the clarification of this was still some years off at the time of this film. Hmmm.
In summary I found this film interesting, albeit partly in an anthropological way. It's not aimed at me, but I found things to enjoy here and even admire. I've also seen it claimed that it's also the highest-grossing cel-animated film to date in North America. The character designs are faithful to what I presume are their TV origins (i.e. slightly crude), but they move well and the movie won the "Best Animation Film Award" at Animation Kobe '98. There's also a 21-minute bonus movie called Pikachu's Summer Vacation
that was attached to this on both its Japanese and American releases, but I haven't watched that yet. Overall, better than I'd expected. The anti-violence message is in conflict with the entire franchise, but for me that was the best bit.
"We don't have to fight? But how can I trust you? You were born different."