Pokémon at the Movies: Celebrating 20 Years on the Silver Screen

Today we have a very special post for you: A guest post by LadPrime, a close friend of your favorite blogging team! No familial relationship to yours truly. Being the stand-up guy he is, he came to us to offer his services for our Pokémon week (which is clearly extending beyond a week) by providing his retrospective on the films. Thanks, LadPrime, for adding to our celebration and providing our very first guest post!


 

After tackling video games, a television series, trading cards, and every kind of merchandise imaginable, it was only natural that the Pokémon franchise would try its hand at film. Since 1999 (1998 in Japan), a Pokémon movie has released each year in tandem with each season of the anime— a whopping 18 in total, and counting. In the United States, the first five films were released theatrically, capitalizing on the series’ delirious heights of popularity in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and have served to debut many of the series’ legendary Pokémon, all the while serving as a springboard for series hero Ash to embark on grand adventures that a television screen couldn’t handle. To celebrate the series’ 20th anniversary, I thought it would be appropriate to highlight some of its most memorable moments on the big screen.

Pokémon The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back

It was November 1999. The new millennium was fast approaching, and Pokémon’s worldwide popularity was at a fever pitch. Fans everywhere had caught them all in Pokémon Red and Blue Versions, bought countless packs of trading cards, and followed the adventures of Ash and Pikachu on television. It was no surprise, then, that in order to become true Pokémon Masters, fans would need to make the trek to their local theater to see Pokémon The First Movie. I certainly remember dragging my parents to the theater, more excited than ever to see what was sure to be an appropriately epic experience play out on screen (in addition to picking up some movie-exclusive trading cards!). Who better to kick off the legacy of Pokémon in film than (at the time), the most powerful and sought after Pokémon of all: Mewtwo and Mew.

Fitting for a theatrical installment of an animated series, Mewtwo Strikes Back raised the stakes in every conceivable way. Ash, Misty, and Brock are pulled from their usual, happy-go-lucky adventures and thrust into the evil, world-conquering scheme of a vengeful Pokémon. Mewtwo’s origin, motivations, and actions all steered the series into much darker waters—when six-year-old me first saw Mewtwo Strikes Back, I was horrified. The lab-created Mewtwo, full of hatred for his perceived betrayal by his creators and his utter lack of purpose, draws our heroes to his isolated fortress with the intent to steal and clone their Pokémon and ultimately destroy them all. The ensuing conflict is as much a philosophical one as it is physical—while Pokémon and their clones battle for supremacy, Ash begs Mewtwo to see the light in his existence, regardless of its origin— “It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

Mewtwo Strikes Back suffers a bit from its heavy-handed message (“fighting is wrong!”) and perhaps too-grim tone, but nonetheless offers a highly compelling villain who challenges our heroes to degrees not possible in a 20-minute television episode. Bolstered by a terrific musical score and some truly intense moments, the film does justice to the most powerful—and complex—Pokémon of all. While it may not be the best movie to come out of the franchise, Mewtwo Strikes Back stands as a bold and suitably momentous first foray into the realm of film.


 

Pokemon The Movie 2000: The Power of One

Whereas Mewtwo Strikes Back raised the stakes by going darker, Pokémon 2000 focused its escalation on worldbuilding, mythos, and a heartwarming sense of character. The epic-yet-intimate story of The Power of One serves as a truly wonderful experience driven by a grand sense of scale, an instantly memorable musical score, and a ton of heart. Pokémon 2000 represents the very best of what the franchise has to offer, and to this day remains my personal favorite Pokémon film.

Like any great sequel, Pokémon 2000 raised the bar over its predecessor in almost every conceivable way. Whereas the majority of the action in Mewtwo Strikes Back took place in an isolated fortress, Pokémon 2000 spans a chain of islands and incorporates characters from every corner of the Pokémon world (at the time). In the middle of his Orange Islands adventure, Ash, along with friends Misty and Tracey, gets caught up in a routine tradition that quickly escalates into a grand adventure with the fate of the awe-inspiring new legendary Pokémon Lugia and the world in the balance.

An admittedly cliché “Chosen One” plot is instantly overshadowed by the commendable themes that the movie is able to drive home with utmost sincerity: the courage to stand up for what’s right, the unfailing bond of true friendship, and the importance of keeping one’s home in their heart. Couple that with great visuals and action, another terrific score, and a much deeper look into the nature of the Pokémon world, and you have a real winner of a story— all tied together by the tremendous heart of the determined, persevering hero at its center.


 

Pokémon 3: Spell of the Unown

Although Pokémon’s popularity was steadily declining from the absolute fever pitch of the late 1990s, the franchise’s third foray into film still made a splash in theaters in summer 2001. The first film to take place in the Johto region, the reunited trio of Ash, Misty, and Brock found themselves drawn into the dreams of a young, orphaned girl brought to life by the power of the Unown. After the grand-scale adventure of Pokémon 2000, Pokémon 3 wisely took an entirely different approach, delivering one of the most personal and most compelling stories in the series thus far.

Spell of the Unown sees the titular Pokémon bring to life the twisted fantasy world of lonely young girl Molly Hale, isolated by the disappearance of her obsessive researcher father. In an effort to compensate, the Unown create the guise of the legendary Pokémon Entei to fill that paternal void, who in turn completes Molly’s “family” by kidnapping an old family friend— Ash’s mother. As in Pokémon 2000, the inclusion of Professor Oak and Delia Ketchum provide a warm grounding to the film, giving Ash a personal stake in a story that’s scope expertly mixes the intimacy of a family story with the limitless landscape of dreams.

The captivating story makes room for some great Pokémon battles, including the celebrated return of Charizard to battle Entei, and delivers a moving message about the immense rewards of taking a risk and stepping outside your comfort zone. As Misty and Brock poignantly observe, in the Pokémon world, the battles may be tough, “but the friends are real.”


 

Pokemon 4Ever: Celebi and the Voice of the Forest

By the end of 2002, Pokémon’s mass popularity was beginning to wane, but that didn’t stop the fourth film in the series from receiving a US theatrical release. Despite a relatively meager return at the box office, the film stuck with fans due to a compelling central narrative offering a clever twist on one of the series’ most beloved characters.

Pokémon 4Ever, unfortunately, marks the beginning of the series’ struggle to consistently tell compelling stories worthy of a feature-length film. There are some great visuals and nice insight into the Pokémon world’s past, but is ultimately fleeting in its impact save for one core relationship. The best Pokémon films feature a combination of a suitably grand scope that differentiates the story from the ongoing series and an intimate display of character either by our main heroes or the world in which they live. 4Ever largely takes place in a fairly isolated forest as our heroes defend featured legendary Pokémon Celebi from a vicious hunter— for the most part, not very out of the ordinary business for Ash and friends.

What really drives the movie, however, is the heartfelt exploration of the relationship between Ash and longtime mentor Professor Oak. The time-travelling Celebi enables Ash to meet and bond with the (unbeknownst to him) young Samuel Oak, with the relationship serving as the film’s much needed anchor. Their many shared qualities— their innate goodness, their love of Pokémon, and their perseverance, create a lasting bond that serves as a warm reminder of what truly is at the heart of the Pokémon series.


 

Pokémon: Destiny Deoxys

After kicking off with three consecutive compelling stories, the Pokémon films started to feel more and more rote, as if they were merely extended episodes rather than engaging stories worthy of feature-length films. That trend began to reverse with Destiny Deoxys, a fun, unique Pokémon film that revitalized the series by switching up genres entirely. The film embraces a heavy disaster movie vibe, with Ash and friends trapped in a city that’s become host to an all-out war between the legendary Rayquaza and Deoxys. In what seems like something of a precursor to Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire’s “Delta Episode”, the film presents some of the most thrilling action seen in the series through these battles, all while Ash and friends race to survive and quell the struggle.

The strongest Pokémon film stories successfully marry a grand scope with an intimate emotional through-line, and while Destiny Deoxys succeeds more in the former than the latter, it still delivers a solid personal payoff in the relationship between the titular Pokémon and a shy boy named Tory, supported by the usual eager warmth Ash brings to any situation. It’s not as strong a through-line as Molly’s story in Pokémon 3, but it gets the job done. While Destiny Deoxys may not be a top-tier Pokémon film, it marked a much-needed revival for the series that paved the way for much better things to come.


 

Pokémon: Lucario and the Mystery of Mew

Earlier, I glowingly raved that Pokémon 2000 embodied all of the best aspects of the franchise. Six films later, the same can be said about this excellent Pokémon film, the final one dubbed by 4Kids. Lucario and the Mystery of Mew is a story so engaging, so lovingly told, and so full of heart that it effortlessly wins over even this original series purist. Trapped away for thousands of years, the mysterious Lucario is thrust into the present day where the dear friend he believed to betray him is revered as a legendary hero. The emotionally broken and distant Lucario finds himself back in action as he helps Ash search for Pikachu, who mysteriously vanished after a sighting of the legendary Mew. What follows is a thematically rich, emotionally engaging story of loss, partnership, and the blurred lines between truth and legacy.

There’s so much to enjoy about this film— a fascinating, even distressing look into the distant past of the Pokémon world, a true emotional challenge for Ash as he struggles to understand and reinvigorate Lucario and find his dear companion, and a powerful, emotionally satisfying conclusion. Brought to vivid life by terrific animation, an engrossing musical score, and heartfelt final vocal performances by the original cast of the series, Lucario and the Mystery of Mew stands as one of the franchise’s finest works of art.


Thanks again, LadPrime, for gracing our blog with your terrific post! Anyone else getting the urge to go watch some Pokémon movies? Before you do that, go to our Facebook page and hit that “like” button! And remember to send us your Pokémon memories so that we’ll have plenty to run a sequel to our Pokémon-themed Friday Flashback! Stay tuned this week as we continue our Pokémon celebration!

 

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