When I was a kid, I liked Pokemon: The First Movie. I played the Game Boy games, I collected the cards for the card game I still don’t know the rules of, and I would play Pokemon in the playground, which pretty much consisted of mimicking a Pokemon by shouting its name whilst beating the shit out of someone else trying to do the same thing. I knew I had strong feelings attached to the film, but I could remember surprisingly little about it compared to other films I had seen at the same age. I have not seen A Bug’s Life since I was five, but I could tell you more about it than Pokemon 1.
On revisiting Pokemon: The First Movie, I could immediately see why. It’s bad. The dialogue is stilted, the fight scenes aren’t even that exciting and it just makes no goddamn sense. But what struck me the most is how cynically slapped together the film seemed to be.
First of all, it’s called, Pokemon: THE FIRST MOVIE. The title immediately warns you that the Pokemon Company want to One Piece the shit out of this movie franchise, and make as many as they can until it no longer becomes profitable (which after 19 movies, as far as I can tell, hasn’t happened yet). The quality of the animation doesn’t seem to be that much better than the tv series. But if visually they can’t justify the need for a film version of Pokemon, then surely it must compensate through a killer screenplay, right?
The story concerns a Pokemon named Mewtwo, who is cloned from a Pokemon named Mew. The hyper-strong Mewtwo breaks free from his lab and starts to clone his own Pokemon. Ash Ketchum, a Pokemon trainer and the hero of the TV series, travels to Mewtwo’s lair under the pretense of a Pokemon tournament, but this turns into a fight so depressing that it makes all of the characters, including Mewtwo, realise that fighting is wrong, and everyone vows not to fight again, at least until the sequel. Then Mewtwo wipes everyone’s memories and then disappears somewhere – he doesn’t say. Get all of that?
The story builds to the heroes’ confrontation with Mewtwo, where the ‘real’ Pokemon and the clones do battle. Missing an opportunity for a spectacular Kill La Kill-style brawl, Mewtwo removes all of the Pokemon’s special abilites – the coolest thing about them – so the fight consists of each Pokemon essentially taking part in a fist-fight to the death, until all of the Pokemon are overwhelmed with exhaustion, in what may be one of the least fun, most upsetting scenes in a G-rated family film. The moral of the story, as it turns out, is that fighting is wrong. Maybe all of the world’s problems would be solved if all of the world’s leaders sat down to watch Pokemon: The First Movie? I haven’t seen the Japanese version of the film (which apparently contains major differences), but I am sure that the dialogue in the scene where everyone realises that, hey, maybe capturing Pokemon and forcing them to fight for our amusement is cruel and inhumane is not in the original film. The whole premise of Pokemon is built on capturing and fighting with Pokemon, but the ending of the American version undermines everything the franchise is built on; it would be like if there was an edition of Wrestlemania where instead of fighting, all of the wrestlers realise that maybe it would be more productive if they could just sort out their problems through sitting down over a hot beverage and working through the issues they have with each other. But their memories are wiped anyway; there are no character arcs, no one learns anything, and the events in the film end up about as pointless to the characters as they are to the audience.
Why did I like this movie then? Well, for one, it’s Pokemon. I’m not sure that I would have understood the story more as a child, but I would have been more excited to see all of my favourite Pokemon on the big screen and tantalised by the promise of more Pokemon to be discovered, including the much-discussed legendary Pokemon. The video games are genuinely good, and there are so many games, publications and merchandise that as a child it is quite easy to get lost in its world. The movie was just another extension of this thing I loved. It’s like Pokemon Go, another Pokemon product that took me way to realise how terrible it is. There are similar games, better games with more features based on the same premise, but it was Pokemon Go that everyone went crazy for because, well, it’s Pokemon. And even though intellectually I know that nothing works about the film, as an adult I still kinda had fun seeing Ash and Pikachu and Team Rocket duke it out.
Pokemon the First Movie understands its audience, even if its audience consists of attention-deficit kids who get excited at seeing Bulbasaur defeat Machamp in one hit (which would NEVER happen, by the way; Bulbasaur does not have the base stats to do that). It’s cheap, it’s cynical, and it was made just to get people into the theatre. It’s cinematic fast food. But it’s probably worth mentioning that as I write this I’m eating Chicken McNuggets.
Dir: Kunihiko Kuyama
Scr: Takeshi Shudo
Cast: Rica Matsumoto, Ikue Otani, Mayami Iizuka
DP: Hisao Shirai
Music: Shinji Miyazaki
Run time: 75 minutes