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SECOND LOOK: Pokémon: The First Movie (1999)

Written by Mark Russell

Pokémon was a big part of my childhood, and ’til this day, I am very fond of the early seasons of the long-running anime. It was a stroke of genius on Nintendo’s part to release the video games, the trading cards, the anime, and merchandise all at once, and Pikachu and co. took the world by storm. In 1999, Pokémon: The First Movie was released in cinemas, and as a nine-year old, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. Now, eighteen movies later, the movie still remains one of the more popular ones, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has aged well. So, this Second Look is taking a dive into the first Pokémon movie and seeing whether or not it was worth trying to catch ‘em all.

The first thing to point out is that Nintendo was a little too ambitious. Who names their first movie as literally “The First Movie”? I guess they knew it was going to make some money overseas, so they already planned ahead. In fact, this movie was actually meant to be the big finale of the anime, before Nintendo realised Pokémon made big bucks and reinvented it as the first of many. The film was dubbed by 4Kids Entertainment, a company notorious for adapting popular anime and recutting/censoring them to the point of stupidity for silly westerners to understand, though Pokémon is actually the one work they are praised for. 4Kids went to town with this movie, particularly regarding their habit of inserting dumb changes and dumber aesops into their works. More on that later.

Let’s look at the story. On a remote island, a group of scientists create a new Pokémon named Mewtwo (Philip Bartlett), a clone of the mythical Mew. Mewtwo is designed to be the world’s most powerful Pokémon and possesses psychic powers that would make Professor Xavier look like Mystic Meg. However, Mewtwo wants to know his purpose in life and doesn’t take too kindly to being made as a lab rat. So, he gets mad and blows up the laboratory, killing all the scientists inside. This is a kid’s movie by the way. Mewtwo is approached by Giovanni (Ted Lewis), leader of the evil Team Rocket and benefactor of Mewtwo’s creation. Giovanni promises to help Mewtwo control his powers and be his partner-in-crime, though Mewtwo quickly learns he was created to be Giovanni’s weapon. Refusing to obey humans, Mewtwo escapes and vows to prove the worth of clones and himself by taking over the world, or at least reshaping it to better suit his kind.

Months later, Mewtwo poses as the world’s greatest Pokémon Master and invites several Pokémon trainers to come to his island home and try to beat him in battle. Amongst them are the anime’s heroes Ash Ketchum (Veronica Taylor), Misty (Rachael Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and everyone’s favourite electric rodent Pikachu (Ikue Otani). The group learns they can’t go to the island because a powerful storm has appeared (thanks to Mewtwo).

A bunch of trainers defy logic and go to the island. Ash and co. hitch a ride with a group of “vikings”, who is actually the hilarious Team Rocket trio: Jessie (Lillis), James (Stuart), and the talking cat-like Meowth (Maddie Blaustein) in disguise. The group manages to make it to the island where they are confronted by Mewtwo, who clones all of the Pokémon to form an army to proceed with his goals. Mew also arrives at the island, mainly out of curiosity, and engages Mewtwo in battle to defend her fellow Pokémon, leading to a brutal clash of might and will, and it is up to Ash to save the day.

So, the plot isn’t really all that bad and carries a strong message about racial prejudice and not being judged by one’s origins. There are some particularly good lines of dialogue in the movie that address this, particularly from Meowth (of all characters), and Mewtwo himself when he realises that your identity should be based on what you do in life rather than where you come from. But while the “all life is equal” message is good, the forced “fighting is wrong” aesop is not. It is dumb and makes no sense when Pokémon’s core element is critter fighting. 4Kids ram it down the audience’s throat for five minutes to make sure they know it is wrong, and then Mewtwo erases all of the characters’ memories, thus they forget the moral, and we don’t care as a result. Great move, 4Kids.

Another blunder on 4Kids’ part is the misnaming of several characters and not correcting them. The producers claimed the mistakes were done deliberately for children to spot, but I know an excuse when I hear one. Even in the film’s accompanying animated short “Pikachu’s Vacation”, Cubone’s classification as the “Lonely Pokémon” was rewritten as being selfish in nature rather than being orphaned as a child and wearing its dead mother’s skull. Okay, maybe that change was justified.

But perhaps the biggest change is Mewtwo’s character. He is still sympathetic and has understandable reasons for his evil ways. He’s kind of like Magneto but as a Pokémon. However, the whole take-over-the-world-scheme was added in by 4Kids so the audience would know who to boo at, since apparently, children won’t pity badguys. What they cut out was the original prologue of the movie, which revealed Mewtwo was created as part of an experiment by the lead scientist in an attempt to resurrect his dead daughter. Mewtwo appears as a child himself and trapped in a psychic limbo of sorts where he interacts with the subconscious of the scientist’s cloned daughter and other clones, but they all fail to save Mewtwo, explaining why he was so mad at the scientists when they planned to use him as a lab rat.

Yeah, a villain driven by an existential crisis, a need to prove his worth, and the loss of a loved one, is too much for children to understand. And yet murdering innocent people and shoving in a completely stupid and later retconned message about fighting is bad is not too much? I still have great respect for the film’s writers Norman Grossfeld and Michael Haigney, but this insertion is just dumb and patronising.

Still, for all the stupidity the dub introduces, Pokémon: The First Movie has plenty of good qualities. The voice actors, who I am very fond of, do a decent job given what they had to work with. They convey the character emotions well, particularly from Veronica Taylor as Ash, who may be the biggest idiot hero ever, but his love for Pokémon is one of his better traits. Philip Bartlett is awesome as Mewtwo, conveying a dark, troubled, and tragic character whose experiences with bad humans has made him an untrusting, dangerous foe with a need to prove his worth. The dialogue can be very cheesy at times, but some of the lines are absolutely hilarious. Yes, even that crude “Minnesota Vikings” pun.

The animation quality is the same standard as the anime, though at times, it can look very gorgeous. The art design is pretty stylish and amazing. Mewtwo’s island place looks like something H.R. Giger created. The renovated lab has an enormous cloning machine that resembles a giant mutant ammonite creature, and the clone Pokémon crawl out of tubes of liquid like they are being born. At least Jim Carrey didn’t crawl out after them.

The film does have a number of frightening or tearjerker moments, and as irritating as that “fighting is bad” lesson is, its execution is surprisingly emotional with all of the human characters reacting in helpless horror at how their Pokémon are being forced to physically beat each other to death. And Pikachu refusing to fight his clone and getting slapped around til his clone is in tears while poor Ash is shaking his head in horror. Then Ash jumps in the way of Mew and Mewtwo’s attacks and turns to stone for some reason, and Pikachu tries to resuscitate him via electric shocks but it doesn’t work because electric attacks don’t work on rock-types, and then Pikachu starts crying and…excuse me…

Prepared For Battle

Ahem…anyway. The music. Yes, the music is quite good. A couple of pop songs were used in the film, and a few memorable orchestral pieces. In comparison to later Pokémon movies, such as the spectacular Pokémon 2000 and the even more amazing third film Spell of the Unown, the First Movie has aged more-or-less okay. It could easily be written off as a brainless cash-in, but stupid morals aside, there is something nostalgic, fun, and exciting about it. Mewtwo remains a very popular character, mainly through this movie, and a female version appeared in sixteenth movie Genesect and the Legend Awakened though her origins are very vague and she distrusts humans, but not on the same level as the first Mewtwo.

So, yeah, Pokémon: The First Movie may not be the greatest movie ever made but is does carry some nostalgia and good times. Worth the watch, flaws and all. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to ride by bicycle around inside a Pokémon Centre and get told off by Professor Oak.

What are your thoughts on Pokémon, particularly this movie? Should morals be forced into films or left out? Need to watch it again? Sound off in the comments section or leave a message on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell