Why Pokemon: The First Movie was bad (and why Pokemon 2 & 3 were good)?
Pokémon continues to be a huge franchise for Nintendo. Although its mainstream popularity has largely waned, in the gaming community each instalment of the game series is waited for with bated breath and every dual instalment rakes in massive amounts of profit for the Big N. But put yourself back in to the late 1990s, Pokémon has only just become a global phenomenon and the TV show (alongside Dragon Ball Z) is making thousands of children around the world into latent anime fans. In 1999, Pokémon takes the big screen with Pokémon: The First Movie which becomes the best grossing Japanese animated feature for years to come.
But soon after the craze dies down, the movie is scoffed off slightly. Also, the following year Pokémon 2000 (or Pokémon 2) follows suit but the excitement is slightly lessened. Everyone seems to agree somewhat begrudgingly that The First Movie wasn’t really all that good. Pokemon 3: The Spell of the Unknown still receives a theatrical release outside Japan but all subsequent Pokémon-movies thereafter (of which there are a frighteningly high number) all go to broadcast and then, subsequently, to home media outside Japan.
However, in retrospect Pokémon 2 and 3 receive far better consideration, from both Pokémon fans and those less familiar with the franchise. So it really begs the question of why the Pocket Monsters’ first cinematic outing wasn’t really all that great. Now, the more cynical readers of this blog may write off any of the Pokémon movies as nothing more than a huge merchandising scheme (and don’t get me wrong, they obviously are that too) but it bears discussing how utterly The First Movie fails to translate its central premise into a good motion picture… because the central premise is good.
In fact, the central premise of The First Movie (more specifically the segment called Mewtwo Strikes Back, since the movie is divided between it and the Pikachu mini-movie which precedes it) is actually very dark for the franchise. Mewtwo is cloned from the cells of the Pokémon Mew which has been believed to be extinct. As soon as he is born though, the genetically altered monstrosity kills its creators and begins questioning the reason for his own existence. A part of this segment of the movie intercuts with the plot-line of the TV show – showing Giovanni, the leader of Team Rocket interacting with him – when Mewtwo refuses to accept his fate to be a simple weapon for the crime organisation and escapes.
It’s actually a quite chilling idea but unfortunately the rest of the movie goes down hill from there. Mewtwo’s convoluted plot involves inviting random Pokémon trainers to his island, defeating them in one-on-one fights and then cloning their Pokémon to add to his clone army while simultaneously somehow causing the destruction of all human and Pokémon kind with a storm. Sadly, none of this really makes any sense because Mewtwo’s modus operandi, his goals and the way he goes about them seem incredibly random and arbitrary. There’s no reason given for how he selects the trainers to come to his island (including the series’ protagonists Ash, Misty and Brock) and there’s no real reason given for why he needs to clone Pokémon and then to eliminate the originals.
It would seem Mewtwo’s antics are the results of his existential crisis going overboard but none of it really opens up to the audience and it eventually takes the intervention of Mew (which is also incredibly arbitrary) and Ash who even dies temporarily to make Mewtwo see the error of his ways. The problem is that Mewtwo’s internal struggles just don’t translate well on-screen and the whole movie becomes a series of random bouts where the human characters stand around awkwardly (with the sole exception of Ash who risks life and limb to get his Pikachu back).
In all, the movie is just a bit of a mess with no sense of scale, progress or even a logical thread for the audience to cling on to. And this may be the sole reason for the movie’s lacklustre delivery. Its premise is maybe too lofty and abstract to be told in a simple animated feature aimed (largely) for children. It also seems clear that Nintendo realised their mistake which is why Pokemon 2: The Power of One was a more straight-forward adventure film with a “let’s save the world” plotline. Definitely not as ambitious as The First Movie but way easier to compress into an hour and 15 minute feature.
Pokémon 2 can be blamed for creating the cookie-cutter plot element of a major douchebag trying to capture a rare Pokémon and sending the world into chaos as a result, but this movie worked much better for a number of reasons. A.) Ash and company were actually at the focus of the events and not just by-standers, B.) The film features memorable scenes of peril and action, C.) It managed to paint a clear picture of the danger posed by the film’s villain’s actions (something that was more than a little vague in The First Movie) and D.) It was genuinely entertaining.
After Nintendo finally honed in on these elements though, they were able to finally make the next instalment of the film series rise to the same level thematically as The First Movie. Pokémon 3 was a real step up from the point of view of how personal its storyline was, dealing with the little girl Molly’s loss of her father and the abduction of Ash’s mother by the Pokémon Entei who serves as a replacement father.
The film doesn’t leave the world in peril, it’s all about Ash trying to find his mother and make Molly break the spell of the Unknown Pokémon. It’s a film that lacks a villain or a threat to the world but is still a film filled with exciting scenes and possessing a high entertainment factor. It’s also head and shoulders above its predecessor in story-telling.
In other words, The First Movie may had been ambitious in theme but it lacked the essentials of good story-telling which is what turned it into a bit of a jumbled mess. Afterwards, Nintendo were smart enough to require a certain level of quality from future Pokémon film adaptions (though definitely relapsed a bit with Pokémon 4ever).