Pokémon’s long running anime turned twenty this year, and the anniversary is marked with the limited release of the official 20th movie: Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! Boy, I feel old. Nostalgia is a big selling point for this film, taking Pokémon fans back in time to the franchise’s golden age. Putting the nostalgia goggles to one side, I Choose You is a charming movie, with a higher production value than the show and past movies. But, despite having a strong character arc, it does rely a little too much on what has come before. Though, that is pretty much the intention.
First off, it should be explained that this movie is not set in the established universe of the anime, but in a new, self-contained world to celebrate the show’s twentieth anniversary. It serves as a re-run of Ash’s greatest hits told in a new story, and even adapting an unexplored plot point set up in the first episode, but it had no payoff.
The film’s opening twenty minutes or so are an abridged take of the anime’s pilot with a bigger budget. 10-year old Ash Ketchum strives to become the world’s greatest Pokémon Master, but sleeps in on the day he is meant to get his starter Pokémon from Professor Oak. Running to Oak’s laboratory in his pyjamas, Ash finds himself partnered with the disobedient Pikachu, who refuses to go in his Pokéball and dislikes Ash. However, a nightmarish encounter with a flock of angry Spearow inspires Ash and Pikachu to trust each other.
From there, our dynamic duo are on their way through the Kanto region to catch Pokémon and make new friends. The story turns away from the more usual tentpoles of the anime, like battling for gym badges. Instead it focuses on the relationships between Ash and his Pokémon, and the more adult parts of the world like the maturity, responsibility, and tactics needed to train and battle with the colourful critters.
We go through some familiar events in Ash’s journey like finding and adopting the abandoned Charmander, and the tearful release of Butterfree. Seriously, watching a big screen reimagining of that childhood heartbreaker brought out the tissues. These moments are very nostalgic, but work just as well as they did on television, and you don’t need to be a long-term fan to enjoy the more emotional parts of the film.
The main plot revolves around Ash’s encounter with the legendary Ho-Oh, teased long ago in the anime, but the unfulfilled plot is now explored. Ash obtains one of Ho-Oh’s magic feathers, effectively making him a worthy opponent to battle the legendary bird atop a mountain. Along the way, Ash meets some new companions: Verity, an energetic trainer who has a Piplup, and Sorrel, a smart kid who wants to study Pokémon, who has a Lucario. Along the way, Ash is also followed by Marshadow, a mysterious Pokémon related to Ho-Oh, possessing an interest in both our hero and his rainbow-coloured feather.
So, let’s address the Donphan in the room. The absence of Misty and Brock is as big as the hole in Ash’s head, and their replacements never really get the chance to grow into their own characters. Verity is like if Misty and Dawn’s best parts were taped together, while Sorrel is like Brock in the sense of being the team’s medic, voice of reason, and expert in everything. Both also have surprisingly dark backstories that never really get much focus beyond a passing mention. What’s the point of creating new characters if receive zero personal focus in the film?
But, by far the most unnecessary character in the movie is Ash’s new rival Cross, a malignant asshole who is all the worst elements of Ash’s past rivals like Gary and Paul thrown together. He is incredibly unpleasant to watch, and even when the film tries to humanise him, it just doesn’t work, because he is spent the whole movie acting like a total butthead. And, it was he who abandoned Charmander in this movie, and refuses to accept the fact that any Pokémon can grow strong with enough time and effort. The swine! I’d be completely fine with Verity and Sorrel appearing in the anime if it meant they could be fleshed out, but I wouldn’t touch Cross with a twenty-foot barge pole.
Team Rocket are around but don’t directly influence the plot at all, supplying minor laughs. If you stick around for the end credits, all of Ash’s former companions make cameos like they are just footnotes in the franchise’s history. Apparently, there was a plan to feature all of Ash’s friends together for a big epic battle. That sounds totally wicked, but instead we instead get three substitutes for Misty, Brock, and Gary who are either underwritten or horrible. And Marshadow’s presence is rather bizarre, with the film both describing him as the personification of evil, but also as an observer of events, and to intervene if Ho-Oh’s feather should be corrupted by a dark heart. I think they just added him to promote the character, since the Japanese version has promos for his release in video games.
If there was one shining light in the film, apart from the gorgeous animation, it is how Ash is treated in the movie. Yeah, he’s still got the brains of a dead Slowpoke, and a strange habit of falling down stairs. But, the better traits of the ever young Pokémon trainer shine through, and his weaknesses make his strengths stand out even more. There is a brief, very out-of-character moment where he reconsiders choosing Pikachu as his partner, but I had assumed it was related to whatever magic Marshadow was doing while bound to Ash’s shadow.
At one point, Ash is plunged into a dream where Pokémon don’t exist, and he is in school! It’s a rather bleak, depressing way that Ash’s life could have gone. And to think, fans have been asking and complaining why he isn’t in school. Our hero makes it perfectly clear why he enjoys his journey, namely to explore the world, meet new friends, and try new things. There always has been this extra level of integrity to Ash beyond being a dopey kid who wants to be the very best, and he still remains one of my favourite characters in fiction.
Pokémon: I Choose You was made for fans of the franchise, so the presence of so many rehashed storylines and familiar elements makes sense. Beautifully animated with enough to leave even the most dedicated fans satisfied, the 20th Pokémon works well. While disregarding canon in favour of revisiting the anime’s classic stories, it tries new but familiar things, has wonderful art and animation, and has enough charm to it. Happy 20th anniversary to you, Ash!
Have you seen the new Pokémon movie, and what were your thoughts on it? Leave a comment below, or on our Twitter feed.