Veteran Pokemon fans anticipated the release of the new Pokemon movie with cautious optimism. Helmed by longtime Poke-director Yuyama Kunihiko and Animation Chief Ichiishi Sayuri, The Pokemon Company billed Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You as a back-to-the-basics reboot, promising to springboard off the first season’s iconic moments. We daydreamed about a reimagined origin story for Ash and Pikachu–the home of our familiar childhood escapes, coated with a fresh coat of Oriental Light and Magic’s digital paint.
Indeed, the introductory battle whisks longtime addicts back to lazy days on childhood sofas–kids booting up their Game Boys, greeted by the warm ping of the Game Freak logo. Kunihiko lands a calculated nostalgia gut-punch by hearkening back to the genesis of many-a Poke-Journey.
However, as the movie progresses, one soon realizes any hope of a Pokemon love letter has devolved into a nostalgia-baiting Greatest Hits clip show. Those of us familiar with the original games and anime can close their eyes and mentally walk through the happenings of the movie’s first twelve minutes. A sarcastic person might think, “Gee, I wonder what’s going to happen next? Ash won’t be late to pick up his very first Pokemon, will he? He won’t get stuck with a cantankerous Pikachu, right? And, surely, he won’t get chased down by a flock of Spearow, sacrifice himself for Pikachu, who will then save the day and become BFFs with his new owner, right? Well, at least the Ho-Oh appearance is new. Oh, wait.” While a shot-for-shot remake of the first few episodes might appeal to some, the hollow execution gives the opening scenes an air of tedium.
Unfortunately, the stellar visuals from the inaugural Gengar/Blastoise fight all but disappear during the shows more static moments. The character models now lay flat against a plastic backdrop. In the spirit of fairness, the problem of CGI in anime goes beyond Pokemon. Yet OLM falls into a familiar trap, opting for a Frankenstein juxtaposition of poorly-textured digital models against two-dimensional fixtures.
Narratively, I Choose You struggles to find its footing. As we slog past the first few iconic Poke-moments, the movie suddenly restarts, veering into a training montage and an admittedly successful re-purposing of the original Japanese theme song. Then, the narrative jolts forward again, picking up after Ash’s gym battle with Erika in Celadon City. Hold on tight, we just fast-forwarded to Johto and Entei. The audience experiences whiplash, awakening from its nostalgiac fever dream, careening through a sensory salvo of battles and fanservice, and finally settling on a plot arc forty minutes in:
Ho-Oh (he lives at the end of the rainbow with all the leprechauns and pots of gold) excretes Rainbow Wings on humans he “particularly likes.” In other words, the Legendary Bird, just chilling over Viridian Forest, saw a scruffy ten-year-old and a Pikachu frying up a massive flock of Spearow and thought, “Hm, I like that kid. It’s about time somebody killed those things. Have yourself a feather!”
Again, with the “chosen one” bit. The Pokemon Company cannot control its impulse to deify Ash, frequently portraying him as the Shaman of the Mother Pokemon Spirit—selected by the PokeGods to shepherd human and Poke-kind into nirvana (and attaining eternal ten-year-oldness in the process).
We meet some new characters, Verity and Sorrel (imposters standing in for Brock and Misty). The producers’ decision to cut out Ash’s original posse makes little sense. For one, their inclusion would have pleased older fans and fulfilled the company’s goal of introducing new audiences to the original story. Secondly, incorporating two random tag-a-longs requires character building—a luxury the film never affords them. Ultimately, Verity and Sorrel serve as little more than plot devices, manufactured for one-time-use–strangers who won’t travel with our hero to the new seasons of the show and won’t satisfy the old-school itch of veteran viewers. Incidentally, I must credit the production crew for creating my new favorite character, the Vaporeon Guy–a fellow who, like everyone else in the Pokemon Center, seems genuinely confused as to why his Pokemon are always teetering on the brink of death.
Since the movie insists on ping-ponging between episode remakes and meandering subplots, a reviewer can only sit back and reflect on—
Things I witnessed in The Pokemon Movie: I Choose You!:
- Entei saunters into the group’s camp and none of them appear all that surprised (despite everyone in Poke-Town having a conniption over his sudden appearance a few scenes earlier).
- The world’s most hated trainer, the Charman-Douche (now Incin-Idiot) returns for his feature film debut, once again being a douche to Charmander (and Charmeleon, and Charizard).
- Onix. They can’t take a joke and will hunt you down to the ends of the Pokemon Universe in response to even the slightest of offenses. The next movie will take place in a dystopian wasteland where humans live under the constant fear of their rock-snake overlords.
- Ash’s toddler meltdown because he lost to Incin-Idiot. He slips into a demon-fueled Marshadow trance and emerges inside a nightmare world where, instead of embarking on an unsupervised trip across the country at ten-years-old, he heeds the will of the fascists and (brace yourself) goes to school.
- A Primeape encounter, a couple pointless Team Rocket gags, and a steamy Butterfree mating ritual (complete with the arbitrary Bye Bye Butterfree moment which adds nothing to the plot except “remember ‘Bye Bye Butterfree’? Great episode”).
- Sorrel’s laughable revelation that “Trainers raise Pokemon, but Pokemon live their own lives.” Ironically, Incin-Idiot’s worldview better mirrors the logic of both the games and the show. Success in the Poke-world depends on leveling up and besting your Rival. Pokemon are simply tools to that end. They “live their own lives” in the wild and then trainers invade their habitats, injure them and/or paralyze, burn, freeze, poison, or put them in a coma so that they can imprison them inside small spherical prisons–only to release them when the trainer feels the need to trap one of the poor beast’s brothers or sister in another small spherical prison and then–
- Oh my goodness, a Raikou!
After a whirlwind of unrelated events, we reach the end of the film. Charman-Douche/Incin-Idiot confronts the chosen one after stalking him across an entire mountain range. He comes to exact his revenge for being cheated out of a major role in the original series and also to prove his utility as Exhibit A for the impending Poke-morality lesson. Spoiler Alert: friendship wins.
The obligatory final battle impresses. OLM pulls out all the stops for an explosive, flame-drenched, Charizardian blitzkrieg (and one of the manliest attacks in the history of the show, courtesy of Incineroar’s crotch).
The rest of the movie consists of a half-baked scenario in which Marshadow, the Julius Caesar of the Pokemon world, stands upon a high perch and looks down solemnly at the humans as they fight their zombified companions and come around to the whole “friendship is power” concept. Once tired of their silly games, Marshadow goes Super Saiyan in an attempt to end their pathetic lives. In the end, Ash and Pikachu prevail (after a brief stint in The Upside Down) and the Magic of the Rainbow gifts Pikachu with the ability to speak Japanese. What was this movie about again? Oh, right, Ho-Oh. He shows up too.
Although mired by hit-or-miss CGI, Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You! consistently dazzles with some of the most highly polished action scenes since the show’s inception. However, the pieced together narrative and conspicuous absence of Brock and Misty cast a shadow over the transcendent battle sequences. The majority of the movie feasts on a buffet of tropes–a hodgepodge of iconic moments from the first season. The film is a watershed moment for the franchise, marking its final evolution into an unstoppable force of Poke-wankery and self-parody.
And, please remember:
~ Don’t Shoot the Messenger