Pokemon, The First Movie

Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999) - PopMatters Film Review )

by Rhonda Baughman



A movie which states that it is “the first movie” spells “doom” in my mind. I shudder at the thought of several sequels to this flick. (Why, exactly, can’t everything Pokemon fit into one movie?) But, in part because the title refers to “Mewtwo,” a name indecipherable to anyone over ten, I realize I had better accept the fact that this may be a generational shift. Even more clearly, I see it is a fad that won’t die soon and decide to brush up on my Poke-vocabulary. Still, I have not succumbed to the enemy just yet. Instead, I opted for dragging along my neighbor’s kid as a translator, just to see what the heck this new craze was all about.

Pokemon The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back is obviously geared towards the younger segment of Earth’s population: it’s a movie that children will force their parents and baby-sitters to see. Though I have heard adults chatting about the Poke-phenomenon over the past few months, opening night here in Canton, OH led me to believe it is only a small minority of those over the age of ten who are as entranced as the target audience. I saw parents and sitters checking their watches repeatedly, while trying their best to hide yawns. They appeared to give up trying to question their youngsters about the movie, when it became obvious that most responses required a good fifteen minutes — coincidentally, just enough time to enjoy the animated short that precedes the movie, entitled “Pikachu’s Vacation” (which, I have to confess, also seemed interminable).

cover art

Pokemon, the First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back

Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
Cast: Veronica Taylor, Rachel Lillis, Eric Stuart, Ikue Ootani, Philip Bartlett

(Warner Bros.)

For the uninitiated, Pokemon is basically a world of three protagonists, Brock, Misty, and Ash, with the latter attempting to become the world’s best Pokemon Master. Their beloved Pokemon (short for pocket monsters), are frequently called upon to do battle with other little creatures, in order to win badges in the hierarchy that is Poke-chock-full of strategies and rules, (similar to Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire, if anyone remembers those role-playing games). Some Pokemon are more active in the movie than others — Squirtle, Psyduck, Bulbasaur, and Pikachu, to name a few — and some more terms may as well be a foreign language to those not involved in the cult following, such as “‘Pokedexes” and “Pokeballs.” You need to pay attention.

It’s worth mentioning that it would be impossible to see all of the Pokemon in the movie, as there are upwards of 150 now. Even the marketing plan to kill all previous marketing plans — and any possible competition, for that matter — cannot fully explain at one time just what all 150+ are and just what they can do without the use of board games, card games, kids’ meals, jewelry, stufflings, and other assorted Poke-paraphernalia. I use the word “paraphernalia” to invoke the sense of mass hysteria created by this craze. Same story, different means: I’ve heard stories of children stabbing children for Pokemon cards, schools banishing anything Pokemon from the classroom due to the disturbance it causes, and parents dreading the inevitable pre-Christmas sell-out of some mysterious and rare Poke-toy.

In The First Movie it seems that the cloned Pokemon “Mewtwo” is a bit miffed at scientists creating him for the sole purpose of exploiting him, and he/she/it now decides that ruling the world should make up for it. Our heroes and their trusty Pokemon are not about to let that happen, and the battle for animated survival begins on a distant island, only accessible via a ferry, which has been cut off due to a storm. True PokeMasters, however, will find a way to get there, even at the risk of their own lives.

Confusions and imperfections abound in Pokemon: The First Movie, beginning with the titular plot point, Mewtwo Strikes Back. Was he previously assaulted somewhere else that we are not aware? Why is this Mewtwo retaliating? The movie is also a bit too long, and I even noticed a few kiddies getting restless as the movie attempted to tackle several major themes in the hour and ten minute time frame. It eventually becomes boring when the Pokemon themselves begin nearly reciting the morals of the story for those audience members who may have given up trying to figure out what the hell is going on.

For example, I counted six themes during the last twenty minutes of the film: discrimination is bad; love conquers all; evil does exist, but with hard work it can be beaten; life is not a destination, but a journey; self-reflection is good; and DNA cloning remains a touchy issue. The movie doesn’t actually take a clear stand on this last moral and philosophical dilemma, which may leave children confused and weary. I know it did me. A Pokemon named Meowth (more mean than nice) explains most of these themes, and, it may have been funny, had the creature looked directly at the camera and spoken, Ferris Bueller-style. But it’s not funny, just tiresome and formulaic.

Another obvious botch job in the movie is its lack of clear transitions between scenes or ideas. In both The First Movie and “Pikachu’s Vacation,” there are only quick cuts and vague flickers, or dancing-and-chanting Pokemon to move from one scene to another. If my ten-year-old companion was boggled at these chanting Pokemon, imagine my utter confusion. I am eleven years her senior, after all: I didn’t stand a chance of comprehension.

But instead of over-analyzing, it may be easier to just take the movie for what it seems to want to be, an hour-and-a-half of animation and (outside the theater, in shopping malls and fast food venues), a popculture monster run amok. I did find myself occasionally chuckling at a few of the Pokemon antics. Pikachu, an obvious crowd favorite and front-runner for best animated actor, is never unfunny, really: a cock of its head, a wide smile, and a chirpy little voice were enough to convince me that I hadn’t wasted my evening at the movies. And when some of the Pokemon become just a bit too serious, Mew’s elfish face and the perpetually perplexed Psyduck (who needs a headache in order to perform his Pokemon duties), appeared to lighten the mood, enough so to have me giggling along with the kids sitting near me.

My companion had me excited to see the ever-elusive Clefairy and Jigglypuff — the former a bouncing, peaceful Pokemon puffball who worships a moonstone with singsongy voice, and the latter a pinkish, round being who sings and puts people to sleep inadvertently and then draws on their faces with a marker. Now that is entertainment: I couldn’t make up such characters if I tried. Sadly, neither materialized…

Ahhh, but my reviewer’s intuition tells me this is merely the first installment, and is only shaping things in the Poke-world to come. I’ll bet I have ample opportunity in the future, to catch ‘em all, as they say, eventually.

Pokemon, the First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back


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