REVIEW: Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back
Produced by: Choji Yoshikawa, Tomoyuki Igarashi, Takemoto Mori; Norman J. Grossfeld (U.S.)
Written by: Takeshi Shudo; Norman J. Grossfeld, Michael Haigney, John Touhey (U.S.)
Edited by: Toshio Henmi, Yutaka Ito
Cinematography by: Hisao Shirai
Music by: Shinji Miyazaki; John Loeffler, Ralph Schuckett (U.S.)
Starring: Veronica Taylor, Ikue Otani, Rachael Lillis, Eric Stuart, Ken gates, Philip Bartlett, Megan Hollingshead, Stomi Korogi, Maddie Blaustein, Tara Jayne, Jimmy Zoppi, Ed Paul, Lisa Ortiz, Kayzie Rogers, Ed Paul
Based on the Pokémon series of video games created by Satoshi Tajiri and the Pokémon TV series
2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the Pokémon video games, and so I thought I’d commemorate the event.
I used to be very into the Pokémon games and anime. My sister and I used to recite the Team Rocket motto for fun (I can still do it all from memory, inflections and all, in fact), and I used to own all three versions of the original games released in the U.S., not to mention a whole slew of the trading cards (including the three original legendary birds – Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres, which my mom so lovingly sought out by name for my big Christmas present one year – and the Ancient Mew card that came out with early tickets of the second film) and some of the spinoff games. There was also my prized Game Boy Printer, which is yellow and Pikachu-themed and was released only in Japan, where I was living as a very nerdy 10 – 12-year-old when the games initially released. I even had a pair of Pikachu and Togepi boxer shorts, and my first ever email account was firstname.lastname@example.org – because while plain ol’ “pokemonmaster” was already taken, I didn’t care because I was #1!
I made it to the second generation with Pokémon Silver before… well, before I promptly got rid of everything soon after (except for that printer, which was too much of a souvenir). Why do that after all that time collecting? Well, you see, my family had a fit of religious fundamentalism after my private school went on a lockdown with the series. We resisted for a while, even making fun of people for it, but one of my mom’s friends, who also had kids there and worked at the school, convinced us that the Pokémon games were demonic and could influence me to do some evil stuff if I kept it up. This purge resulted in selling off or throwing away quite a bit, even outside of the Pokémon stuff, including the first Harry Potter book I never even got around to reading (that’s why I missed that bandwagon) and my Mortal Kombat games, but it was focused primarily on my Pokémon stuff. (I don’t know how I convinced my mom that we shouldn’t get rid of my Zelda games, though. Probably because it was more about good vs. evil…) I didn’t mind so much at the time, ‘cause I was convinced, too, but after about a year or so, we realized how crazy we were being, and then there was quite a bit of resentment about the whole ordeal. I never really picked it back up, sadly, despite an attempt to back in the Diamond & Pearl era, but I still wished I had most of my stuff back – including both copies of the first movie I owned: the U.S. DVD cut and as well as an unsubtitled Japanese VHS copy of the original cut, which contains 10 minutes of prologue explaining Mewtwo’s early development that was cut from the U.S. release due to its somber tone.
I didn’t see this movie for years until just recently when the official website posted the movie for free, piquing my interest all over again. I used to watch the movie quite a bit when I still had it, and when I wasn’t, I was listening to the soundtrack, which wasn’t so much a soundtrack as it was a bunch of awful late-‘90s pop songs randomly assembled. I wondered, then, if the movie would still hold the same power for me, despite the years of separation. Would I still be thrilled by witnessing the creation of Mewtwo? Would I still be delighted by the playful antics of the original Mew? Would I still be moved to near tears when a certain someone tries to intervene and stop the fighting and causes a certain favorite Pokémon to try to revive them in the aftermath? Well…
You have to understand that when you’re as into the fandom as I was as a kid, that kind of melodrama really resonates with you, regardless of the silliness going on. These were characters I watched on a weekly basis going on a journey that I felt I myself was also going down by playing the games concurrently and collecting ‘em all to become the very best and all that. Ash, the series protagonist who is seemingly always learning lessons about what it means to be a great Pokémon trainer, was me, as he was plenty of other kids, too, and his friends were our friends, and they all had the coolest pets who didn’t mind competing with one another who had the best teams and all that. This was one of the first big epic worlds we followed, and we were actively asked to participate in it (and give Nintendo all our money in the process).
Pokémon: The First Movie was a freaking event for fans, as the film was addressing the creation of what was one of the most fearsome Pokémon of all at the time, Mewtwo, who was cloned from the preserved eyelash of one of the rarest, most ancient Pokémon, Mew. Mewtwo was one of the most elusive creatures in the game, only appearing once at the end of the game’s storyline and only able to be encountered once, so you either had to save your special 100% odds of capture Pokéball until the very end or be a really freaking bold battle strategist to weaken him down and capture him the hard way. Mewtwo was – and kind of still is – a big freaking deal, symbolic of how man readily twist and pervert nature for his own ends, only for it to backfire and consume him, and now we were going to get to see him take everyone on, including his progenitor, who was even more rare than him!
Sadly, the movie doesn’t hold up. Mewtwo, at least in the U.S. cut, quickly realizes he’s being manipulated by humanity and then vows to take over the world with his own superior clone Pokémon, eradicating both humans and their subservient creatures alike in the process. To do this, he first sends invites to the best trainers of the world, which for some reason includes Ash and his friends, Brock and Misty, and then challenge them to a battle. Once the trainers arrive, however, they discover that the self-proclaimed Pokémon Master is, indeed, a Pokémon himself. They argue about whether this is… against the rules or something, and then they challenge him to a very one-sided fight, which Mewtwo turns into a battle to the death by psychically taking away the Pokémon’s apparently handicapped special abilities. Will Mewtwo learn that there’s sanctity to all life and end his war? Obscure pop rock group Blessid Union of Souls certainly hopes so…
The Japanese version of this film was a bit more ambitious with its storyline and seems to understand that it’s kind of nonsensical to vilify battling in a series based around battling and instead focused on the message of all life mattering. The U.S. English dub, however, removes a lot of this subtext in exchange for a strictly generic and easier to comprehend “violence is bad” message (apparently they think American kids are dumber than Japanese kids). This, of course, makes absolutely no sense, even with the characters qualifying in expositional dialogue that they’re referring to the powerless way Mewtwo is making them fight. Even disregarding that confused message, though, the battles we do see in the film have very little stakes and even less spectacle. The animation is very dull and barely any better than the limited stuff they produced on the TV series at the time. As a result, corners are cut, and there’s no theatricality to seeing it on the big screen, since there’s barely anything better than what fans had seen before. It’s pretty much clear in every round that Mewtwo’s team has the upper hand, and each one wins every battle very quickly, until Ash does something completely silly that deus ex machinas the situation for the better and then Mewtwo executes another deus ex machina that results in it basically all being a dream, hitting the reset and character development for all of our main characters. So much for a lesson learned.
And even if you are a fan, then you should know about the basic logistics of Pokémon battles, which should then make you realize that there’s zero logic to the trainers’ strategies here. Each time Mewtwo sends in one Pokémon, they send in the same freaking type of Pokémon, completely ignoring the fact that 1) Mewtwo never stipulates it has to be a clone vs. original battle, and 2) the best trainers should always knows that the most basic hierarchy of Pokémon types is Fire > Grass > Water > Fire. These are the best trainers… how? Yeah, yeah – I get that it’s to make it clearer to kids that, oh gosh, these are more powerful than their original forms, but… three more times? Wouldn’t the stakes be even higher if a Fire-type were to easily hand a Water-type their ass in battle, regardless of the original’s inherent weaknesses!?
I would have liked to have come out of this saying that I had a whole new appreciation for the film, but there’s no getting around the fact that Pokémon: The First Movie is an incredibly weak film, regardless of the source material. It’s made all the weaker in its U.S. cut, which not only shortens the film and changes the message, but also subs in some sappy, awful pop music over the big climactic showdown between the world’s two most powerful Pokémon. (And, no, I no longer get chocked up in the aftermath of that conflict.) If I had any praise for it, I would like to point out that I do like the portrayal of Mewtwo – Philip Bartlett, real name Jay Goede, has a menacing but empathetic voice that works well with the effects they put on it. Mewtwo’s voice first showed me the power of surround sound, with the theatrical experience, I remember, having his inner voice coming through the center channel and his psychic voice coming through from all directions. That was very cool to a kid like me. Ikue Otani also gets some pretty great range out of Pikachu, even when he can only speak in syllables pulled from his name. She was Groot before Vin Diesel, basically!
That’s really about it, though, and not all the problems can be blamed on the U.S. dub, either. The story affords very little for Ash’s friends, Misty and Brock, to do, while regular numskull villains Team Rocket are relegated to providing mere exposition from the sidelines, conveying information that’s already been communicated to us in one form or another, making them completely redundant. Heck, the fact that the movie can’t even adhere to the logic of its own world makes this even more of a failure in my book, and I’m not even impassioned about this stuff anymore. Sure, I still had a pang of nostalgia every now and then, but it was always accompanied by the realization of just how naïve kids could be and also how much better they deserve. Pokémon, for all of its cynical marketing schemes, is still a massively fun concept that I would honestly not mind getting back into playing (My Riolu on Pearl is probably just aching to evolve into Lucario already!), and I would love to see it properly presented on the big screen, but for as long as these films are treated as mere means of debuting new monsters to catch ahead of their game releases and not a fertile ground for some fun fantasy adventures with fantastical creatures, there’s probably no chance of these achieving any kind of legit critical success.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 1 / 5
P.S.: If you happen to also watch the 20+ minute long short Pikachu’s Summer Vacation, which was released alongside the film, prepare to have your patience tested with both the robotic Pokédex voice and, particularly, that obnoxious gimmick of Pokémon only speaking their name. You will want to see Pikachu let that bratty Togepi get smashed into little eggshells pretty quickly!