Pokémon, The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back

Directed by Kunohiko Yuyama (English soundtrack directed by Michael Haigney)
Starring: Voices of Veronica Taylor, Racheal Lillis, Eric Stuart, Ikue Ootani.
MPAA Rating: G

Review by Matt Heffernan
November 10, 1999

I was never completely ignorant of the Pokémon craze in America, but my eyes opened far wider on August 6 of this year. That's the day I saw The Iron Giant, which was preceded by a trailer for Pokémon, The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back. I will never forget that moment. When the "4 Kids Entertainment" production company logo appeared on the screen, one of the kids in the theater cried out "Pokémon!" Then, the little creatures and their human masters appeared, and all of the kids went completely nuts. I had never seen such a reaction to a mere advertisement in my life. When the trailer ended, they broke into applause. I knew that not only did Warner Bros. have a major hit on their hands, but that this craze has now reached the level of an almost-religious phenomenon.

For those of you uninitiated with the TV show, or the video games, or the trading cards, or the tons of other merchandising, the concept of Pokémon is quite simple: cartoon cockfighting for kids. Human trainers unleash their Pokémon (pocket monsters) on each other, and they fight until one "faints" (which looks a whole lot like fighting to the death). The show follows Ash (voiced by Veronica Taylor), a boy who strives to be a Pokémon master. In this film, he is challenged by the self-proclaimed best master, who lives on a remote island.

Ash and his friends, Misty (Racheal Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and Pikachu (more about him later), head out without knowing that this master is actually a Pokémon, himself. He is Mewtwo, a clone made from the remains of the supposedly extinct, and extremely powerful Pokémon, Mew. Unlike most of his kind, Mewtwo is super-intelligent, and can communicate through telepathy. He wants revenge against the scientists who created him for the purpose of enslaving him. So, he invites several masters, and steals their well-trained Pokémon for further cloning, in order to create a master race that will not submit to humans.

Confused? Well, it's not your fault. This whole franchise is driven by one thing: marketing. Say what you will about Nintendo's odd creation, you can't deny its brilliant design. The children who watch the show and play the games are encouraged to develop an uncontrollable desire to "catch 'em all," which leads to increased sales. The construction of it all is quite amazing, but that is not what I am here to criticize. Approaching this film from an artistic standpoint, it is not as successful. The characters are barely one-dimensional, bordering on non-existent. The motives are all mechanical, making the experience like watching a video game being played by somebody else.

That's not to say that it isn't sometimes interesting to look at. The feature film has a grander scale than the TV show, even if the animation is still the same bargain-basement quality. The graceful flow of better Japanese animation, or anime, is not to be found here. Worse yet, a moral about not fighting and accepting those with different backgrounds is forced down the audience's collective throat during the protracted ending. (One question: if a Pokémon's raison d'etre is fighting, and that's supposed to be bad, then isn't their existence contradictory with their philosophy? I know, I shouldn't get that deep into it.)

I think the main reason for the initial attraction to Pokémon is Pikachu, the yellow mouse-like creature with a thunderbolt-shaped tail. The image of Pikachu (which is so unavoidable that practically everybody has been exposed to it) can be likened to that of the original Mickey Mouse. There is a certain quality to its dimensions and features that is highly appealing, much like Disney's creation. This little creature, who has a vocabulary of three syllables ("Pee", "Kah", and "Chu"), has entered the public consciousness, pushing the old mouse completely out of the imagination of today's children. You may not want to see this film, but if you have children of the right age, you won't have a choice.

Opening Short: Pikachu's Vacation

If you find the little Pokémon themselves very annoying, then you will certainly hate this seemingly endless short. Unlike the feature, this time we see things from the perspective of Pikachu, as he takes a vacation with a bunch of his Pokémon friends. They meet some unfriendly Pokémon (including Raichu, an evolved form of Pikachu), and they have their own contest, even though there are no trainers around. The one good thing about Pikachu's Vacation is that it gets the worst part of the show over with in the beginning. Without any human dialogue, you are forced to hear nearly a full reel of these too-cute monsters chattering incoherently with each other. It was painful, to say the least.

For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
Pokémon, The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999)
Poketto monsutaa: Pikachű no natsu-yasumi (1998) (Pikachu's Vacation)

Here's some merchandise for sale at Amazon.com
Pokémon, The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999) -- VHS
Pokémon, The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999) -- DVD
Pokémon, The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, a screenplay novelization by Tracey West -- Paperback
Pokémon: Pikachu's Vacation, a screenplay novelization by Tracey West -- Paperback

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan