There are some monsters you just don’t mess with.
Take Mewtwo, for instance, who is spoken to be the most powerful of all of the diverse species of creatures known as Pokémon. Mewtwo is brought into the world as an artificial being, a clone of an especially rare species known as Mew. This clone, an “animal” with superhuman intelligence and devastating psychic abilities, begins its life by questioning that life’s purpose–and then by destroying the lab that created it.
Pokémon is not a franchise I immediately associate with mass destruction and existential crises (neither of which I consider especially appropriate for children, despite this movie’s rating), but both are on display in the series’ first feature film. This movie is well aware of what it wants to accomplish, and even as it doesn’t always know how to reach that goal, it’s a fun film with plenty of exciting moments.
Even given its ceaseless rage, this creature halfway resembling a cat and a human is still a rather sympathetic villain, given its endurance of careless exploitation and eventual betrayal. A man named Giovanni has commissioned a special and awesome-looking suit of armor that will allow Mewtwo to focus its power.
Indeed, the monster is shown to be extremely capable in battle, flinging away gigantic enemies and groups of opponents left and right with none capable of resisting. Mewtwo’s glowing eyes look awesomely creepy through its armor, but all of the masses of power to be wielded cannot answer one single question–why am I here?
“To serve your master!” Giovanni replies, giving an answer Mewtwo doesn’t accept willingly. (It should be noted that the former’s motivations, as those of the power-hungry criminal organization Team Rocket, don’t play a huge role in the story and aren’t really developed in detail.) Giovanni clearly doesn’t have Mewtwo’s interests in mind–no one does, reasons Mewtwo, and immediately this extremely powerful being, created to fight and conquer, sets out to do just that.
The movie then formally introduces longtime protagonist Ash Ketchum and his traveling companions Misty and Brock. Our would-be Pokémon master is busy complaining of hunger, while Misty bemoans his laziness and Brock cooks up some delicious stew. A random trainer challenges Ash to a Pokémon battle. Cue awesome theme song. During this thrilling sequence, Ash’s Pokémon handily trounce his opponent’s with only a few moves, and while the fight’s exciting presentation doesn’t make sense in light of the movie’s later intentions, the scene while it lasts is definitely well made.
Also appearing, as part of Team Rocket, are recurring villains Jessie and James, as well as their comic-relief sidekick, a Pokémon named Meowth. Meowth, for complex reasons that are explained in the television show to which this movie is connected, is capable of using human speech and is thus placed into the role of a translator between people and Pokémon. The “Rockets,” as usual, are trying to steal rare Pokémon including Ash’s trusty Pikachu, but their plan gets quickly sidetracked, preventing much of this film from feeling like just another episode (and it isn’t much longer than three of those put together without commercials).
A mysterious individual–Mewtwo, of course–is busy sending out invitations to its palace, so that the strongest Pokémon trainers and their teams may be gathered for the ultimate challenge. Mewtwo uses its immense abilities, unhindered by such things as moral compasses, to create a massive storm that brings tsunami-sized waves. (Why doesn’t Mewtwo first go and crush the foremost elite members of the Pokémon League, and why doesn’t it just start subjugating human governments and institutions by force? It can fly, and it’s not afraid or unwilling to commit open murder.) Meanwhile, the adorable Mew appears.
Bravery and danger
The focus then shifts to a storm-drenched harbor, where many Pokémon trainers have already assembled in preparation for battle. A thrown-in prophecy subplot clumsily foreshadows a pivotal plot event, and without boats available for charter (and against the wishes of a well-meaning policewoman), the various trainers set out on the backs of their Pokémon in order to make their own way across the water. Many are later implied to fail, which is horrifying yet seemingly forgotten.
The actual scene in which the heroes and villains make their way across the water is a ton of fun to watch, as Misty, Ash, and others ride their Pokémon under and through pounding waves. Team Rocket actually sort of helps, making a number of lame jokes in the process, and they’re not the only guilty party. Mewtwo’s palace itself looks pretty awesome and has a rather interesting art design.
After a gratuitously, almost intolerably cute scene with the more purely catlike Mew, as well as a really good-looking scene of the main heroes walking upward through a watery cave, the various surviving Pokémon trainers are finally revealed. (One trainer did indeed fly over the winds using a gigantic bird.) A delightful fanservice sequence of these trainers and their wide variety of Pokémon follows, showcasing flame-wielding foxes, aquatic adepts, stuffed-animal lookalikes, and many more. Meanwhile, Team Rocket sneaks into Mewtwo’s palace through a drainage pipe, an unfathomable security risk for a supposedly extremely intelligent Pokémon.
As Mewtwo unleashes physical and verbal abuse on humans and on their “servants,” it’s to be noted that this rather short movie is nearly halfway over without really having gotten started. The action is well paced, but the somewhat pleasantly simple story feels like it has a few too many wasteful scenes dedicated to jokes and the like. Mewtwo–a being who is heavily resentful of having been born a clone–has been cloning several Pokémon of his own, essentially reliving the process of his creation: the clones look visibly different from the “originals,” and the former are also significantly more powerful, even if neither seems to gain an edge in stamina in the long run. Mewtwo’s Pokémon-replication system is explained in detail, complete with pretty well done computer-generated imagery, and more backstory pertaining to Mew and Mewtwo follows. In short, Mewtwo was designed, at Giovanni’s request, to be powerful. Its creators succeeded.
Mewtwo wants to crush servile-seeming Pokémon along with their masters, against which Ash’s Pikachu argues that it is Ash’s friend, not his servant. (This is essentially a less carefully told version of the Pokémon series’ own introspective deconstruction that was pulled off nicely if noncommittally in the twin game entries known as Black and White.) “Can humans and Pokémon be friends?” Mewtwo wonders, which eventually cues a bragging race between Mewtwo and the various trainers working together. Why the trainers send out their Pokémon one-on-one instead of fighting their host all at once is unclear, but at least this keeps the actual fights from being hard to follow. Some of Mewtwo’s cloned monsters awaken, and Ash’s easy victory early on in the movie gets turned against him, as is the case for his peers. The battles themselves, while as awesome to watch as could be expected, are mere fanservice in light of the pacifistic message the movie ultimately wants to send. Some of those battles’ ends are rather painful to watch, however.
Ash eventually does begin establishing himself as a true hero, however: when Mewtwo forces the losing Pokémon into a rather unpleasant fate, Ash’s brute strength and determination overpower some of Mewtwo’s machinery (did it not have a backup plan to deal with this?), at which point the various created clones begin coming to life all at once. The background music is delightfully ominous, even with the lame puns going around, but at this point there are only twenty minutes left in a movie that’s still not done setting up.
Mewtwo is awesomely and darkly charismatic, complete with the occasional smug smile, and Ash is a thrill to watch in his scene of leading the rescued Pokémon originals into battle against Mewtwo and the clones, complete with epic triumph music playing. The wages of Ash’s rather foolhardy determination quickly turn into a climactic fight between Mewtwo and Mew that goes on for several minutes. Mewtwo just attacks its inspiration for no good reason except to prove its own superiority, and in the process the surrounding palace incurs massive amounts of collateral damage. Somehow Mewtwo can cause an enormous oceanic storm without effort but can’t easily subdue a Mew.
Eventually Meowth preaches part of the film’s message, that a Pokémon’s power comes from the heart and not from physical strength (which the series’ main battle mechanics don’t really agree with, but spinoff entry Pokémon Conquest did turn a monster’s increasing emotional bonds with its trainer into a neat means of growing stronger), and the various Pokémon and their clones begin fighting one another in the name of hostility as opposed to sport while an anti-war song plays. The movie is annoyingly blunt about a message that doesn’t even make sense in context: the Pokémon series has long been all about pitting monsters against one another, but the extent of a battle’s outcome is generally limited to one side “fainting” instead of being extensively injured, and Pokémon health in the games is very easy to restore. Also, during said “anti-war” song, the sight of two ducks slapping each other is portrayed in a humorous manner, but if the series’ own core mechanic is immoral, then I shouldn’t be laughing.
Then the violence is rendered in slow motion as in an actual war movie, and it becomes a lot less “stylized” while the Pokémon and their clones painfully use the last of their energy against one another. As a result, the fighting becomes a lot less exciting and a lot less pleasant to watch. Ash’s friends Misty and Brock shout about how fighting is wrong, even though that’s a large part of their young careers. If they ever embraced that lesson, I don’t remember it. Mew and Mewtwo, on the other hand, are still fighting to their own stalemate while inside pink and blue balls of energy, which look bad when you can’t actually see the Pokémon themselves. It’s here that the film enters its endgame.
Some things I’m glad I knew about ahead of time.
The film’s major plot event is a desperate heroic sacrifice, portrayed awesomely and engrossingly despite the movie’s severe writing problems. At this point the movie is simply making up its rules as it goes, heavily contriving both the central problem to be solved and its solution–but the movie knows what audience reaction it’s going for, and it hits hard. It is absolutely tragic to watch a creature vainly come to the rescue of a friend it deeply loves, and it is absolutely tragic to watch that creature and dozens of others mourn in unison. It’s not often I see a movie that so blatantly tries to evoke emotion, and it’s even rarer that such a film succeeds, but this film does. The writing and even the otherwise noble message have issues, but none of that really matters here. This just works for some strange reason as the film walks a very fine line between being excessive and being absolutely powerful.
The movie’s point about collateral damage in combat and about the cost of actual, hostile war is a good one, as if this were a clumsy version of Grave of the Fireflies (spoilers), and the story’s intentions’ biggest problem is not that they are invalid but that they are out of place. Pokémon is a sport that is only as “hostile” as an undisciplined trainer chooses to be, even as this universe hasn’t always been clear on what kinds of actions cause what kinds of injuries–monsters can and do die, though generally not when battling. And so this movie can hardly be faulted for wanting to do the right thing, even if it’s not always sure of the best way to do so.
Conclusion: There’s just enough here that works.
Pokémon: The First Movie is heavily divided against itself from start to finish, not only in its writing but in its production values: The fight scenes look great–in an anti-war movie that is sometimes way too violent and depressing to be “child-friendly”–but some animation elsewhere seems jerky. The dialogue is acceptable, but some of the voice acting doesn’t sound believable (notably Officer Jenny’s and the prophetess’s). The story is thin and slowly paced, but it’s also clearly told and easy to follow, if sometimes it does get carried away with repeating itself. The message is “good,” but as it is, it feels unsubtle and out of place. It would have been better served having been delivered from Ash’s mouth, really: His own Pokémon journey began disastrously, but his decisions, not just his experienced, forged him into a young man who proved himself a hero time and again.
The movie contains plenty of contradictions but is full of plenty of exciting and engaging moments for the viewer willing to overlook the story’s numerous issues. It might not make sense to pass around anti-war propaganda at a boxing match, but there’s still some wisdom here in how to make the most of life’s circumstances and in how to resolve personal, real-world disagreements without fighting, such as on focusing on what is shared instead of what is different. Pokémon: The First Movie was great to watch when it released, and it still holds up today.
Author’s note: This post was originally published on my movie review blog, Projected Realities.