Ah, the late Nineties: A hell of a time to be around and young. Bill Clinton was in the midst of impeachment hearing about lying under oath about an extramarital affair with a secretary. The anxiety of an entire generation leading up to a new millennium. The New York Yankees and Michael Jordan dominating the sports world. Radiohead making waves with their smash record OK Computer. And production company, Miramax Films, led by then-hot shot producer Harvey Weinstein, set Hollywood on fire with indie hit after indie hit. I was only nine at the time, and the only thing I gave a damn about was Pokemon.
To say that Pokemon was a trend was an insult to the word itself. Pokemon was everywhere. It was on television. It was on a special edition of the popular board game Monopoly. It was on backpacks, clothing, cereal boxes and in the school yards during recess and lunch, in the form of the trading card game, or the Nintendo Game Boy you took to school with you. The only way you could not know about Pokemon was either waking up from a coma after a few years, or if you were a Quaker.
Naturally, the next logical step in the marketing and selling of Pokemon was a film version, and so in November of 1999, Warner Brothers, in their quest to milk this franchise for all its worth, released dubbed version of the hit anime TV series. I remember that day, almost fondly: dad and I waited in line for almost two hours in order to get tickets. The theater I went to sold out a show every 15 to 30 minutes, until we get the tickets for a 1:45 showing in the afternoon. I remember having a blast watching Ash, Misty, Brock and their Pokemon friends doing battle against the jaded Mewtwo, and my dad said he enjoyed himself as well.
That was in 1999. It’s now 2018. Pokemon: The First Movie, for lack of a better term, fucking sucks. Before I take a bat to this junk food of a film, I should briefly explain the premise of the TV show: young trainer Ash Ketchum (like the tagline, ‘Gotta Catch ’em All!’) dreams of being a Pokemon Master, and he sets off to become a Trainer, visiting city after city, collecting Pokemon and challenging the Indigo League’s top trainers in order to qualify for the Pokemon League, all while staying a step ahead of Team Rocket members, Jesse & James, two dim-witted poachers who constantly try to please the leader of their criminal organization, Giovanni by stealing Ash’s most trusted companion, Pikachu. Yes, the plot to the show is pretty thin. The movie’s story is even thinner and more nonsensical.
Mewtwo, created by scientists to become the world’s strongest Pokemon, and furious that he is seen as nothing but a laboratory creature, kills his creators using his psychic powers (how he gained said powers is never really explained) and destroys the lab. through his rage, he rebuilds and sets out to punish humanity for….well, reasons that keep the plot moving. Actually, the Japanese version of the film address Mewtwo’s backstory: the geneticist Dr. Fuji is hired by crime lord Giovanni to create the creature from the DNA of a rare Pokemon, Mew. Fuji allies himself with him for one purpose: to resurrect her dead daughter, Amber.
As Mewtwo evolves, he befriends the consciousness of the little girl, and the two become friends, but not before the latter whither and dies, leaving Mewtwo alone and erases any memory he has of her. This would have made for a dark, even interesting development for Mewtwo’s backstory, but Warner Brothers thought that piece of storytelling would be too much for the kids to handle, yet they were fine with Frankenstein’s monster-trope rebelling against his own creators and brutally blowing them sky high. You know, for the kids!
Our heroes, Ash, Misty and Brock are selected by Mewtwo to New Island, in guise as being the strongest Pokemon trainer in the world. There, he announces his purpose for bringing the selective trainers to the secluded island: to clone his own race of Pokemon and wipe out all life – human and Pokemon who side with their trainers, in order to create a new world with his cloned brethren. Basically, he’s the movie version of Ultron, but even less fleshed out and not voiced by James Spader. Mewtwo hates how humans force Pokemon to fight and battle for their trainers, so he….builds a Pokemon gym to battle other trainers by using his cloned Pokemon. Ash and the other Pokemon do battle, along with Mew…..to show that Mewtwo that he’s wrong. By battling other Pokemon in a fight to the death. Misty looks over the scene, disgusted and terrified over what’s unfolding before her eyes. “Pokemon aren’t meant to fight. Not like this!”
That’s right: the makers of this movie are trying to cram an anti-violence message down the audience’s collective throat, in a movie about an antagonist that, as you recall, fucking murdered bystanders, cloned his own Pokemon and made said Pokemon fight other trainers and their companions. And just in case you forgot: the anime series, along with the video-game on which it’s based on, celebrates trainers capturing wild creatures and training them to fight for the amusement of their masters. Cake, anyone?
Pokemon: The First Movie is just terrible. As a narrative feature, it’s story is razor thin and it never fully develops the characters; in particular, Mewtwo is regulated to a Frankenstein’s monster-trope that we’ve seen done in better movies. The anti-violence/animal cruelty message rings false and hollow, given that the entire movie is built on wild animals being captured and being forced to battle at the whim of their masters and as a family movie, it teaches nothing but to continue to sell kids on Pokemon, and for adults to keep buying Pokemon merch for the kids. It’s there to sell more toys, more games and to be a bright, colorful distraction for kids so the powers-that-be can rake in more money. It’s cynically-crafted children’s entertainment, and nothing else.