POKEMON: MEWTWO STRIKES BACK

[Reading time: 5 minutes]

POKEMON: MEWTWO STRIKES BACK (POKEMON: MEWTWO COLPISCE ANCORA, formerly known as POKEMON: THE FIRST MOVIE)

Japanese, 1999, Anime/Science-Fiction/Fantasy, directed by Kunihiko Yuyama, Oriental Light & Magic / Toho / Nintendo.  This review is of the English adaptation produced by Michael Haigney, starring the voices of Veronica Taylor, Rachael Lillis, Eric Stuart, Jay “Philip Bartlett” Goede and Maddie Blaustein, 4Kids Entertainment / Warner Bros.

“I wanna be the very best, like no-one ever was…” Those words introduced a generation of 1990s kids to the phenomenon of Pokémon, a revolutionary video game / anime / trading card hybrid which was unlike anything they’d ever seen.  Fast-forward to today, and nothing has changed, as people make fools of themselves in public with the Pokémon GO app as it supplants the Game Boys and DSs of yesteryear, and the TV series continues to serve as a cynical, shill, empty cash-cow with no artistic merit whatsoever.  So what better film to review for this week’s Cinematic Calamity than the apex of cynical, shill, empty cash-cows?  A Pokémon movie.  This’ll be SO bad, right?

The story is set after the original, and best, 80 episodes of the Pokémon cartoon, called Pokémon: The Indigo League for all you trivia nuts.  While on their way to the Orange Islands, Ash Ketchum (voiced by Veronica Taylor), Pikachu, Brock Harrison (Eric Stuart) and Misty Whatshername (Rachael Lillis) are invited to a party on New Island, but get sidetracked by a deadly cyclone at sea, plus the interference of Team Rocket’s Jessie (Lillis), James (Stuart) and talking cat Meowth (Maddie Blaustein).  It turns out the party was a decoy for an evil scheme launched by the Genetic Pokémon, Mewtwo (Jay Goede, credited as “Philip Bartlett”), who invited the Pokémon Trainers so that he could steal their Pokémon and create superpowered clones of them to take over the world.  You see, Mewtwo is VERY cross, and not just because he hasn’t had his morning coffee.  He was created as a clone of the extinct Pokémon known as Mew, but when he found out that he was a clone, he went a bit bonkers, and long story short, Ash and his friends have to make the ultimate stand against Mewtwo before he conquers the world.  The story is simple and basic, very easy to follow, just like the anime’s regular episodes, and also pays homage to both Jurassic Park (Mewtwo is cloned from a Mew’s hair, much like the dinosaur clones) and Frankenstein (the basic story of a clone rebelling against its master and becoming evil) without becoming too much of a rip-off.

The voice acting in this movie is surprisingly decent.  Veronica Taylor voices Ash as a freakish mixture of Fran Drescher and Hillary Clinton on helium, with a shrill, raspy voice that doesn’t suit a 10-year-old boy, but at least she does a decent job with it, giving Ash all kinds of ways to emote in a way that subsequent Ash actors didn’t.  Rachael Lillis is excellent as both Misty and Jessie, switching with ease from confident heroine to over-the-top hammy dominatrix, and Eric Stuart does the same for Brock and James, oscillating from the caring and compassionate trainer, to the campy Team Rocket villain.  Jay Goede’s chilling tenor makes Mewtwo an intimidating presence whose uncanny-valley ability to talk without moving his mouth makes him even more unsettling.

The animation in the film is dysphoric to the extreme.  The battles are fluid, fast-paced and full of pakapaka effects (flashing strobe lights – trigger warning: DON’T watch this movie if you are at risk of seizures), but as soon as the action lets down and a dialogue scene starts, the movement becomes janky and limited, with 12FPS low-res garbage that looks like something out of Super Friends (Super Amici).

The soundtrack is also a mixed bag: the remake of the opening theme by Billy Crawford (who used to be a big deal when I was a child) lacks the chutzpah of the original version, and the incidental music is bland.  Thankfully we also get “Brother, My Brother”, an anti-war anthem by Blessed Union of Souls, which provides real poignancy to the film’s later moments, and a nice Christina Aguilera song in the ending credits.

As a kid, this was one of my favorite animated films.  Now I find the Pokémon cartoon series to be humdrum, boring, and juvenile, save for some great episodes in its pre-2000 run (yes, I’m a Gen I fetishist, I know). This movie, however, transcends the storytelling quality of even the best episodes: sure, it starts out as just “Pokémon vs Clone Pokémon”, but its dark visuals and atmosphere lead you to believe that there’s more to it than that.  And that’s when the film hits you with the subplot in which Mewtwo claims that the Pokémon trainers are mistreating their Pokémon by making them fight, and that they’d be happier without their masters; Mewtwo then pits his clones against the trainers’ own Pokémon in a long, grueling battle.  We’re not used to seeing Pokémon fights this brutal: usually, it’s slapstick rough ‘n’ tumble, kind of like King Kong vs Godzilla. But here, it’s quite clear that the Pokémon get injured and tired, and someone dies!  I won’t spoil it, but the “death” scene is my favourite scene across the cartoon’s almost-20-year run, and it’s one of Disneyesque sadness and poignancy: the Pokémon’s reactions are very realistic, like a dog’s reaction to the death of its owner.

Overall, while I still enjoy this movie as much as I used to, I can’t recommend it for anyone who doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of the Pokémon universe.  If not, the dialogue will sound like all Greek to you, and you’ll be outraged at the story’s “fighting is bad” moral and scream hypocrisy: the truth is that Pokémon are said to enjoy fighting because they do it out of love for their trainers and never really hurt each other, whereas Mewtwo has no love for them and attempts genocide… The “we are all brothers, so no fighting” message is a touching one, but it will only speak to those familiar with the Pokémon franchise’s moral compass.  All in all, it’s the very best film in the series, but strictly for fans, and anyone outside that demographic is unlikely to appreciate its accomplishments; I usually score films with a decimal fraction grade, but this time, I refuse to do so, simply because grading a film that only preaches to its own restricted choir is like Magikarp’s Splash attack: it’s not very effective.

Recommended for: die-hard fans of the Pokémon franchise, especially those who want to see something different and more mature than the series’ usual hijinks.

Next week, the Master of Movie Disasters will review the 2005 REMAKE OF THE FOG, starring one of his favorite actors, Tom Welling!

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