I choose you....to forever tarnish the Pokemon franchise
Pokemon: The First Movie, also known as Pokemon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, is directed by Kunihiko Yuyuma and consists of three different segments: a 21-minute short called Pikachu's Vacation, a 10-minute prologue called Origin of Mewtwo, and the main 75 minute feature, Mewtwo Strikes Back. This review only looks at the latter two segments.
There is usually something to be said about a film appealing to a niche market versus appealing to a mass market. It's true that not every film is targeted at the entire human population; graphic, R-rated action films are not intending to draw hoards of kids into theaters, just as other films are primarily geared towards kids and not to fully-grown adults. Meanwhile, mass market films aim to provide something of value to people of all ages and all different kinds of backgrounds, with the hopes of drawing massive box office returns. Regardless, a casual film watcher has the power to pick and choose whichever films they want to watch, whether it's niche market film or a mass market film.
In the case of Pokemon: The First Movie, we are dealing with far more than just any standard niche market film (the box office returns might suggest the movie is a mass market film, but I assure you, it's not); Pokemon: The First Movie has a niche market so outrageously narrow, that anyone who is not a member of this movie's target audience will find it an appalling, cringe-worthy experience. That target audience I am referring to is not just Pokemon fans, but very very young Pokemon fans, the ones who couldn't care less about what all of the humans in the movie are saying, their only desire being to fixate their eyes solely on all of the bright, flashy Pokemon action going on. Lucky for Toho, Nintendo, 4Kids Entertainment, and Warner Bros. though, as that specific audience turned out to be large enough and passionate enough so as to make Pokemon: The First Movie number one at the box office in its opening weekend and set off the Pokemon anime film series, now at twenty-one films and counting. I grew up playing all of the Pokemon games, and to this day, I still consider myself a fan of the franchise. Seeing how Pokemon has grown into the almighty juggernaut that it is and that I am taking this month to review anime films, I figured it would be kind of fun to tackle at least one of these Pokemon anime films. Sure, I would see the film a lot differently now viewing it through an adult lens, but I had childhood nostalgia on my side, and nothing gets to your soft spot more than childhood nostalgia.
Oh, what foolish optimism...
Despite the fact that I was, at the time, a member of Pokemon: The First Movie's target audience, childhood nostalgia had utterly no effect on the way I felt watching this film from start to finish for the first time in years. I felt extreme discomfort right from the get-go, resisting the urge to write, "Why am I watching this???" over and over again in my notes as the film went along (I somehow wrote that question only one time). This was more than Nintendo and Toho and 4Kids and Warner Bros. just trying to cash in on all of the games, trading cards, and other Pokemon merchandise; this was the Pokemon franchise showing a complete disregard for anyone who didn't know the first thing about Pokemon, as if anyone who wasn't familiar with the world of Pokemon could, in no shape or form, find any intrinsic value from Pokemon: The First Movie, nor any of the other movies to follow. Hence, that is where you get your incredibly narrow target audience for not just this movie, but for every other Pokemon movie to have been made up until now. Unfortunately for Pokemon: The First Movie, the problems extend much farther beyond just appealing to a very specific audience.
I am honestly a little stumped about how to approach the rest of this review, because, dear readers, I can't assume that all of you reading this are Pokemon fans, and that I can use phrases like, "It's super effective!", "Gotcha! Caterpie was caught!", or "Looks like Team Rocket's blasting off again!" and think you know what I'm talking about. So, in order to be fair to everyone, I am going to treat the rest of this review as if no one reading this has any prior knowledge of Pokemon.
Alrighty then! So for those who don't know, the word Pokemon is the romanticized contraction of the phrase Pocket Monsters, and it refers to a series of creatures that possess a wide variety of skills and strengths. People known as Pokemon trainers are able to catch these creatures inside of tiny balls called Pokeballs, and can then train the Pokemon to become stronger, while also developing a friendship. Pokemon: The First Movie opens with a group of scientists finding a DNA sample of the most powerful Pokemon of all: Mew. They use the DNA sample in a series of cloning experiments, eventually succeeding in creating a living, breathing clone of Mew, which the scientists simply refer to as Mewtwo. Mewtwo (Masachika Ichimura/Philip Bartlett) grows and eventually awakens, learning of his origin as a clone of Mew. Enraged that he is seen as nothing more than an experiment, Mewtwo uses his psychic powers to break free and destroy the laboratory, vowing revenge on humanity.
Mewtwo rebuilds the laboratory and invites several trainers to the island, using hologram messages to tell the trainers that they are being invited to challenge the world's greatest Pokemon trainer. One of the invited trainers is the main hero from the anime series: Ash Ketchum (Rica Matsumoto/Veronica Taylor), who heads to the island with his best Pokemon friend Pikachu (Okue Otani) and his two human friends Misty (Mayumi Iizuka/Rachael Lillis) and Brock (Yuji Ueda/Eric Stuart). When Ash, his friends, and the other trainers get to the island and meet Mewtwo, they soon find themselves in a heated battle against Mewtwo and his Pokemon clones.
- The nicest thing I can say about Pokemon: The First Movie is that it has a killer soundtrack, put together by composer Shinji Miyazaki. It's about the only thing in the whole movie that can possibly stir up an emotion, whether its some mild excitement during one of the battle scenes or a teensy weensy sense of wonder during one of Mewtwo's brooding sessions. If only as much effort went into the writing and direction...
- Although I've discussed a lot about the film's insular marketing, I haven't even touched upon what makes Pokemon: The First Movie such an egregious affair. The movie is incredibly pretentious, highlighted by one of the most shove-it-down-your-throat messages of all time about how fighting is wrong and that nothing but pain and misery can come out of senseless fighting. It happens right at the film's climax, and it's so hilariously botched, not because of how pretentious that the voice acting and dialogue makes it sound, but because of how the message completely contradicts something that is integral to the entire Pokemon franchise: trainers engaging their Pokemon in battles against other trainers' Pokemon. Now look, it's one thing to talk about a friendly type of fighting versus a serious and more violent type of fighting, but the way that Pokemon: The First Movie puts its anti-fighting method, it's trying to condemn all forms of fighting, and everyone but the young children in the audience are bound to watch this scene as if toxic sludge was just poured into their ears. I don't want to sound like I'm making too much out of one measly scene; there are several other times throughout the movie where characters either straight up say what kind of message the movie is hoping to send to the audience, or characters sound like they're trying to have a major philosophical debate on life, when in reality, they're talking hokey nonsense. The idea of film is to show, not tell; something I guess no one working on this movie ever learned.
It is truly unfortunate that the Pokemon franchise, having one of the most innovative and talked about series of RPG games of all time, allowed a movie of such low caliber to be made and to be released in theaters, knowing full well that not one person outside of the Pokemon fanbase would have a single clue about practically anything going on in this movie. Pokemon: The First Movie makes tons of assumptions; it assumes you know who all of the human characters are and how they know one another and it assumes you know what Pokemon are and how certain Pokemon work together. This is much different than watching a sequel to a certain movie; there is so much more information required of you going in. Even if you do have all of the necessary prerequisites for watching this movie, it's still not going to be enough to get past the movie's pretentious, shove-it-down-your-throat attitude that would make all but the most die-hard of Pokemon fans question why they became a fan in the first place. The whole thing is basically an extended episode of the anime, but it's a far cry from the first couple of seasons of the anime. I've seen the first few seasons of the anime; I grew up watching them, and I still to this day find them funny and enjoyable. Having that childhood nostalgia of watching the anime is what made watching Pokemon: The First Movie recently hurt as much as it did. It is a movie that is not at all fun or thought-provoking or inspiring. It is a movie purely for young children, who want to do nothing more than watch their favorite Pokemon heroes go on an adventure. The fact that I was old enough to be a part of this film's niche market makes me feel that much more disdain.
Recommend? No. This movie is only for young children who are die-hard Pokemon fans.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: