Nov. 13, 1998 might be the worst day of my mother’s life.
This was the Friday she took my friends and I (in the third grade and aged nine at the time) to see “Pokémon: The First Movie,” which was gracing movie theaters all across North America. Like just about every other kid in the world at that moment, we were caught up in PokéMania and you bet your asses we were going to follow the adventures of Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu from the small screen to the big one. One of my friends even suggested we sit in the front row so the Pokémon battles would look “super freaky.”
We were such badasses.
As for my mom, she was the parent unlucky enough to chaperone us. I was exceptionally poor at putting myself in the shoes of others at the time, but looking back, I imagine she probably had the same face as that dude who tried Borat’s cheese for most of the 70 or so minute run time. My sister Aimee was also there, just in case it wasn’t excruciating enough.
With that crucial background information established, let’s dive into the film itself.
“TFM” opens with Mewtwo himself, our villain of the piece. He’s created in a lab from the DNA of the supposedly extinct Pokémon, Mew. I imagine Mewtwo is meant to be sympathetic in these establishing scenes, but all of that is quickly undermined by the fact that his voice sounds like Michael Shannon’s aggressively Republican uncle. So far we are not off to a fantastic start.
Mewtwo has a rather convoluted arc he needs to quickly embark upon so he immediately destroys the lab in a manner that almost certainly kills every person inside of it (“TFM” does not dwell on this, for some reason). It’s at this moment that Giovanni, the sinister leader of Team Rocket and the benefactor of the clone project, appears. Giovanni offers to help Mewtwo control his powers in exchange for Mewtwo being his sla….oh, wait. Oops. I meant in exchange for being his special little helper. That sounds much better, doesn’t it?
We get this brief montage of Mewtwo helping Team Rocket capture wild Pokémon en masse and beating the crap out of some unlucky trainers (including that piece of work Gary Oak). However, Mewtwo is still questioning his purpose. When Giovanni helpfully informs Mewtwo that his purpose is to serve TR, Mewtwo flips out again and escapes rather easily. Like seriously, he just blows a hole in the ceiling of the Viridian City gym and flies away. Did Giovanni not have any security measures for his immensely powerful psychic slave killing machine? I guess he blew Team Rocket’s entire budget on the cloning experiment; there weren’t any funds left for so much as a shock collar.
Mewtwo returns to the island where the destroyed lab is and makes it his lair. It is from here that he will set his sinister plan into motion. It is also called “New Island” now, because the translation/localization team came into work hungover that morning.
After all of this, we finally get to see our heroes. Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu are setting up camp on a clifftop overlooking the sea. Ash is being useless while Misty and Brock set up a picnic table (how is there room for that in their backpacks? How?!) and cook, which will not surprise anyone who has ever watched the anime. Ash would have probably walked right off the cliff if they hadn’t told him to stop. This relaxing moment gets interrupted when some broish trainer challenges Ash to a battle. Over the course the opening credits, we get our first proper Pokémon battle of the film. Not far from this action, the Team Rocket Trio of Jesse, James and Meowth are spying on the heroes and plotting another attempt to snatch Ash’s Pikachu that will most certainly succeed and not send them blasting off again.
Mewtwo’s plan works like this: he presents himself as the greatest Pokémon master in the world and sends out invitations to a select group of trainers inviting them to New Island (typing that is painful). According to the invitation, the trainers will battle each other tournament style with the winner taking on the host. So far that’s not a bad setup for a Pokémon movie. The “Enter the Dragon” formula is always ripe for plundering, and I won’t begrudge Pokémon for getting in on it.
For reasons that have everything to do with him being the protagonist and nothing at all to do with his actually abysmal skill as a trainer, Ash receives an invitation in hologram form from a courier Dragonite, who almost kills the gang in the course of the delivery. This should probably be the first indicator that is some sort of trap, but since this is Ash we’re talking about, he just takes it in stride with Brock and Misty simply going along with his whims. Because they need to be in the movie for a very stupid reason that comes later, Team Rocket intercepts the courier (even though he’s a magic dragon and they are a pair of dolts in matching outfits with a talking cat) and steals one of his invitations.
Ash and the crew head to a ferry station to hitch a ride to New Island (Uggghhh…). While there, they get a chance to size up the competition, one of whom could only be described as Pokémon world’s version of Patton Oswalt. The PokéGang is about to face their first real obstacle of the movie: in order to make things more interesting, Mewtwo summons a massive storm (psychic Pokémon can do that, I guess). The idea being that only the invited trainers that were truly worthy of facing him would find a way through the storm to the island; the rough seas cause the harbor master to cancel the ferry ride, much to everyone’s dismay. The harbor master then tells the disheartened trainers and other would-be passengers a story about some fierce storm that happened long ago. Said storm killed everyone in town, but the tears of their sad Pokémon bring the deceased back to life. This tale does nothing to encourage our heroes, but it does cock Chekhov’s Gun.
This isn’t a problem for PokéPatton, who rides his Gyarados to the island (if you just pretend it’s Patton Oswalt riding a sea dragon, the movie becomes much better). Similarly, the other trainers simply hitch a ride on their flying and/or swimming Pokémon. I guess that would be like me piggyback riding on Spike across Lake Tahoe, but I don’t think either of us would enjoy that.
Not a flotation device and most certainly not a Pokémon. Photo by me.
Oh, that really dumb reason for Team Rocket being in this movie? That moment comes right about now.
The PokéGang is in quite a dilemma here. The ferry rides have been canceled and none of them have Pokémon strong enough to carry them through the storm. But luckily, a longship pulls up alongside the dock and the female and male Vikings onboard who are totally not Team Rocket in disguise (spoiler alert: the Vikings are totally Team Rocket in disguise) offer our heroes a ride. Since they have no other choice and are dreadful at seeing through obvious ruses, Ash, Misty, Brock and Pikachu step aboard the boat. What follows is perhaps the most baffling exchange of dialogue in all of Pokémon.
Brock: “I didn’t know Vikings still existed!”
Ash: “They mostly live in Minnesota.”
Don’t believe me? Here’s the clip:
That’s right boys and girls; somewhere in the geographic clusterfuck of the Pokémon World, there is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Not only are Team Rocket just in this movie to get the PokéGang from point A to point B, but the only reason they are dressed as Vikings is so Ash can make a football joke for the English dub (the Vikings were 15-1 in 1998, should anyone ask). The Pokémon anime is no stranger to non sequitur, but this was some next level shit.
The antiquated longship handles the storm about as well as you’d expect and it is rapidly capsized by an enormous wave. Ash and Misty deploy their Squirtle and Staryu respectively, and manage to get themselves and Brock to the island. Because they still need to be in the movie for some reason, Team Rocket also gets to the island safely despite not having any water Pokémon. This is pretty much the end of any usefulness Team Rocket has in “TFM.” They are dead weight from here on out.
Though we have more or less reached the middle of the movie, there is still one more element that needs to come into play: Mew. The flying psychic mouse thing that our villain is cloned from is first seen sleeping in a pink bubble under the ocean which just so happens to be right next to New Island. Since we don’t really have a movie without Mewtwo fighting his progenitor, Mew wakes up, breaches the sea and flies off to the island because it has this big weird windmill thing that looks fun to him. Mew then starts playing on said windmill.
I know; this movie is odd. I mean, hero stumbles into bad guy’s lair because he thinks it looks like a place to have a good time is kind of a forced way to set up a showdown. Do you go into biker bars because they have signs in the windows stating “Karaoke Night?” Bear with me; we’re halfway through.
So we’re now on the island. The PokéGang is greeted by the woman from the holographic invitation. Said woman is a missing Nurse Joy, but somehow that still doesn’t convince anybody this is all a trap. After some mingling between the PokéGang and the other trainers (PokéPatton is very proud of his Gyarados), Mewtwo drops the charade and reveals himself to his guests. Now a flying, psychic kangaroo-looking thing is by itself not all that surprising in Pokémon World, but Mewtwo’s claim to be the world’s greatest trainer doesn’t sit well with everybody, and especially not PokéPatton, who promptly orders his Gyarados to attack. This doesn’t end well for either of them.
Now outed as a proper villain, Mewtwo does the bad guy thing where he informs the heroes of his plan: he considers (and not without reason, in all fairness) that the human-Pokémon relationship is that of master and slave. To bring about liberation, he brings the best trainers in the world to his island (this doesn’t explain Ash’s presence, but whatevs) to pit their Pokémon against his clones of Pokémon. That big storm still going on outside? Mewtwo is going to use that to wipe out all the world’s humans and their Pokémon and replace them all with his cloned Pokémon.
I don’t get it either. I mean, liberating Pokémon by killing them all and replacing them with clones is dumb enough on its own, but doesn’t this just perpetuate the cycle of violence of Pokémon fighting each other for entertainment and a vaguely defined sense of fulfill…oh, fuck it. This movie’s sense mortality only gets more confusing from here, so buckle up.
The trainers all enter an arena where a Venusaur, a Blastoise and Ash’s Charizard all get wooped by their clone counterparts. Satisfied that his genetic copies are superior to all else after watching just three different one-on-one matches, Mewtwo decides to seize all of the trainers’ Pokémon and uses some nightmarish magic black Poké Balls to do so. These things start zooming around, either of their own accord or guided by Mewtwo’s telekinesis, and start snatching up Pokémon left and right. This leads to an extended chase sequence throughout New Island that drags on a tad too long. This is also the point in the movie where Ash might have gone Super Saiyan.
But before we get to that, we need to revisit the increasingly purposeless Team Rocket, who exhausted their usefulness to the plot about 15 or 20 minute ago. They are infiltrating New Island through its sewers and are being stalked by little Mew, who has now grown bored of the windmill. There is some physical comedy that 9-year-old me would’ve thought hilarious where Meowth becomes vaguely aware the trio is being followed by something and then whips around real fast to catch the stalker only to see nothing there. Ha ha. Jesse, James and Meowth finally do something noteworthy by stumbling across the island’s lab and activating a video log in which a scientist describes the cloning experiment (Mewtwo was created from a fossilized eyebrow hair from Mew). The video cuts out right as the lab gets destroyed, confirming my suspicion that everyone on this island died when Mewtwo escaped. While they are in here, the cloning machine activates.
Meanwhile Ash and Pikachu are running themselves ragged around the island, being pursued by the nightmare Poké Balls. “TFM” sort of just forgets about Brock, Misty and the other trainers at this point. There’s also this weird lack of urgency afflicting the proceedings. The storm outside is supposed to kill every human and Pokémon on Earth, but we don’t see any of it. We just have this 10-year-old kid and his electric mouse being chased by balls in the Cathedral of St. Bowie. That thing I said about Ash going Super Saipan? He’s basically indestructible during this chase, getting pelted in the back by a shitload of with Poké Balls at potato gun-velocity and also falling off the edge of a many story high spiral staircase into some not-soft-at-all water. The fall comes after Pikachu finally gets caught by one of the balls and Ash goes to some truly insane lengths to get him back.
Fortunately, the much deeper than expected body of water Ash falls into leads into the lab where Team Rocket (“I don’t have time for your stupid motto!” he shouts at them) is. Now this is the part of the movie where you are really going to regret eating that bag of mushrooms. Before Ash shows up, the cloning machines start oozing out Pokémon clones, which emerge from a fetal position out of goo-filled tubes and they are covered in tar-like birth marks. Jesse, James and Meowth spend most of this time cowering in the corner, their Team Rocket job training (whatever that entailed) utterly useless in the face of this Frankensteinian horror. I almost feel bad for them.
Ash continues to display his newfound indestructibility by diving into the cloning machine, where he proceeds to kick, punch and bite the motherfucker to death. No, seriously, he does that. Fuck this kid. I wish I was that tough at age 10. Breaking the machine frees all of the Pokémon and we get an allegedly touching reunion between Ash, Pikachu, Bulbasaur and Squirtle. What follows is meant to be “TFM’s” badass rally moment: Ash leads all of the freed Pokémon into the arena to put a stop to Mewtwo and all of his evil machinations. Brock, Misty and the other trainers are still there, in case we forgot they existed, but tragically they have nothing useful to do for the rest of the movie. Ash once again demonstrates his stunning lack of self-preservation instincts by charging Mewtwo and attempting to punch him, which is pretty dumb even for this movie. Unsurprisingly, Mewtwo uses his psychic powers to pick up Ash and launch him through the air to the upper deck of the arena. He is promptly saved by deus ex Mew, who finally reveals himself to the other characters.
Despite not having any prior knowledge of the situation or the players involved, Mew shows his heroic colors and decides to stop Mewtwo. Well, he doesn’t really have a choice, at least initially. Mewtwo of course instigates a fight with his genetic source material, as it is the logical extension of his clone superiority rhetoric. So if you aren’t sick of this shit yet, here goes clones versus originals, round two. This time Mewtwo telepathically blocks all the Pokémons’ special abilities (no breathing fire or flying, etc.) to level the playing field. As for Mewtwo and Mew themselves, they carry out their duel by respectively turning into blue and pink bubble sphere thingies and crashing into each other really hard. I feel like this should earn points for originality. At one point Mewtwo even uses that damned shadow ball move I could never hit anything with in “Super Smash Bros Melee.”
Snark aside, Mewtwo and Mew inside their blue and pink bubbles crashing into each are the most endearing imagery of this movie. When I think of “Pokémon: TFM,” this scene comes to mind. Weird. But if you think that’s strange, just wait until the most jarring musical number ever kicks in. I had somehow completely forgotten about this detail of “TFM,” so when it happens, it hits you like a truck filled with bricks. Behold the beauty of “Brother, My Brother.”
Yep. Whoever was in charge of the English version of the movie felt it needed a fat dose of Blessed Union of Souls, Sevendust’s bastard alt rock half-brother. The song itself is…alright, I guess. Those people who insist that 90’s music wasn’t awful might have had these guys (still active 17 years after this musical landmark) in mind. The scene itself is where “TFM” really goes off the rails. We see Pokémon punch, kick, jab, tackle, head butt and bite one another and it’s presented as The Saddest Thing Ever. They get sweaty and pant a lot and none of them appear to be in any actual mortal peril, yet the PokéGang, the other trainers and the now de-brainwashed Nurse Joy are overcome with sorrow at the sight of these mildly exhausted Pokémon and want the fight to stop.
In short, “Pokémon: TFM’s” moral message is that fighting is bad and that we should all just get along. This is great, but if you just herniated yourself laughing, it’s because you made a crucial realization: this theme completely undermines the entire premise of this juggernaut multimedia franchise. Catching them all and becoming the very best, like no one ever was? Why do that when everyone can just get along?
The best/worst part is that the writers (at least those who translated the English version) seem to be aware of this contradiction and make very half-assed attempts to address it. Hence we have lines like “Pokémon weren’t meant to fight,” from a distraught Nurse Joy on the verge of tears with a convenient “like this” tacked onto the end of it so we know that not all Pokémon battling is bad. But exactly what the hell is so bad about Pokémon fighting “like this?” Remember, Mewtwo disabled all of their abilities, so it’s just physical combat. Wouldn’t Pokémon battles be less dangerous when they aren’t burning, poisoning, electrocuting, freezing and confusing each other? I mean, God forbid Pokémon get sweaty and start panting, which is the worst thing that happens to any of them in this fight.
Nine-year-old me was riveted to the screen at this point.
We’ve reached our breaking point. Ash, Misty and Brock want to stop the fight but are powerless to do so. It’s at this moment that Ash does something very dumb even by Ash standards: in a desperate bid to halt the battle, he charges in between Mew and Mewtwo right when they both release a charged up super move. I mean, I can kind of understand why he’d do this. Throughout “TFM,” Ash has survived a storm, gotten machine gun pelted by evil sentient Poké Balls, fallen like 50 stories, destroyed a machine by punching it and has been thrown a mile through the air. He probably just assumed he was invincible by now, and can you really blame him? Alas, the boy from Pallet Town is shit out of luck; he succumbs to the psychic attack and gets…turned to stone? The fuck? How does a psychic type Pokémon do that to someone? You know what, never mind.
Here we get The Saddest Thing Ever, Part Deux. Statue Ash is laying belly-down on the ground while a devastated Pikachu tries to revive him with some DIY defibrillation. Completely unaware that electric can’t beat rock (duh), Pikachu’s efforts are futile, and he starts crying. Moved by his devotion to his fallen master, all of the other Pokémon – clone and non-clone – join in for one big sob fest. Hey! Remember that story the harbor master told about the storm that kills humanity and the tears of their Pokémon bring them back to life? Well, through the power of tears, Ash comes back from his second onscreen death, to the delight of Pikachu, Brock and Misty. With all of this love and devotion breaking through his steely exterior and striking him right in the heart, Mewtwo relents, ending the battle and halting the storm.
Does the whole “Pokémon tears bring the dead back to life” business ever come up again in the series? I would be most appreciative if someone who watched the show/movies past Generation One can answer that.
Would-be clone dictator/genocide conductor Mewtwo sees the errors of his ways, and all it took was accidentally turning a 10-year-old into stone in a psychic battle with a flying pink cat-thing. No longer interested in world domination, Mewtwo decides to establish a secluded utopia for his clones by using his vast powers in just one more dickish way. He teleports everyone through space and time back to the ferry dock also wipes their memories clean of the entire incident. Seriously, how did anyone catch this guy in Red and Blue?
Ash, Brock, Misty and Nurse Joy come to their senses in the crowded dock, except this time there is no storm outside and it’s bright and sunny. Despite being entirely unsure how they ended up at this dock, the PokéGang are in good spirits and decide to head out to the next town. Before departing, however, Ash catches a brief glimpse of Mew flying through the clouds, mirroring his sighting of Ho-Oh in the first episode of the anime. With all of that business of getting along with each other and not fighting anymore safely mind-wiped away, it’s back to catching ’em all and becoming the very best, like no one ever was.
Since we absolutely need to know Team Rocket’s fate, “TFM” ends with them on a tiny island in the middle of the sea, with no apparent means off of it. Despite the fact that they are maybe a day and a half away from considering the necessity of eating Meowth, this is presented as a happy ending for them.
When the movie was over and the house lights came back on, my friends and I were pretty pumped. I’m not sure if we thought it was the best thing ever at the time, but it was definitely in 9-year-old Kyle’s top five. My sister looked annoyed; my mom looked as if our beloved dog Ashley had come back to life and then died again. I probably enjoyed the rest of that afternoon.
So, yeah, “Pokémon: The First Movie” doesn’t hold up. I mean, I’d be shocked if it did, but it doesn’t quite sink to the depths of true terribleness either. This is the rut that the Pokémon anime is in when I look back on it. It’s not particularly good, but it’s not really bad enough to go on the hate-watch list either. It’s just sort of there; a curious childhood staple, as endlessly fascinating as it is confusing; to be laughed about and picked over by Millennials of a certain age as we continue to get older. And nothing in the franchise exemplifies that better than “Pokémon: The First Movie”