Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

I’ll admit upfront that I was highly skeptical of the new “live-action” Pokémon movie when it was first announced. It’s not the Pokémon property itself that had me rolling my eyes. To the contrary, I was excited to see a CG Pikachu go on a seedy urban adventure in the real world, encountering a vast array of fellow pocket monsters along the way. It was the announcement of Ryan Reynolds’s casting as the voice of Pikachu that had me worried. Detective Pikachu is specifically adapted from a Pokémon videogame in which the electric-rodent yokai is voiced by a hard-boiled detective, finding humor in the contrast between his cutesy appearance and his tough-guy demeanor. Personally, I’d much rather see these same CG characters & world designs treated with a straight-forward, genuine sentient true to the series’ kawaii beginnings. Covering up those cutesy impulses with a joking, above-it-all snark from the most sarcastic wisecracker in the business seemed like preemptively apologizing for making a Pokémon movie in the first place, as if it were embarrassing that adults would want to see something so cute & nerdy without a smartass celebrity there to hold our hands and reassure us that it is Cool. Basically, I was afraid that Ryan Reynolds was going to transform Pikachu into Lil’ Deadpool.

I’m happy to report that Reynolds’s mood-ruining smartassery only distracted from Pikachu’s cuteness to a minimal degree. This is a movie where Pikachu makes sex jokes (including an alarming one about people nonconsensually sticking fingers inside of him), refers to strangers with pet names like “Sweetie” & “Doll,” and constantly pressures his human partner to flirt with women. I would have much rather had the electro-rat in question only say its own name in cutesy Pokémon tradition to the annoyance of a tough-guy human detective partner (as if its Who Framed Roger Rabbit? lineage couldn’t be any clearer), but you take what you can get. Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is a compromise for everyone who dares enter. No one who is disinterested in Pokémon’s inherent kawaii appeal is going to give the movie a short based on Ryan Reynold’s voice acting, nor based on the film’s Baby’s First Noir plot in which a young teen finds himself (and his missing father) in a futuristic Tokyo. Those inconveniences are just obligatory concessions to get a Pokémon movie greenlit by studio executives in the first place, so that the already-converted could all get a gander at our favorite pocket monsters on the big screen (and, in my case, in 3-D). I do think the concessions are worth the effort, though. No matter what you must put up with to get a look at them, the pokémon themselves remain very, very cute.

Detective Pikachu is pretty damn cute overall, but in every single frame where there weren’t any pokémon I was thinking “Where’s the pokémon?,” so I guess it could have been cuter. Squirtles, Psyducks, and Mr. Mimes (along with pokétypes I’ve forgotten the names of in the decades since I really enjoyed this stuff as a kid) all get their chance to shine alongside brand-ambassador Pikachu, but I greedily wanted more. The movie starts off in the deep end of pokélore with references to Mewtwo, the personality differences been fire & water types, and all kinds of other series-specific jargon that would confuse anyone outside A Certain Generation who grew up with this nonsense. It even eventually follows Pokémon movie tradition in claiming themes against the capture, subjugation, and battling of pokémon despite those morally bankrupt practices all being essential to series lore (to the point of referenced in its theme song). Still, it ultimately settles into a serviceable, but forgettable neon & synths noir that distracts from its higher purpose: parading as many cute-as-fuck pokémon across the screen as it can in under two hours. The absurdity of enlisting Ken Watanabe for its pokénoir proceedings was amusing, but I even would have traded that living legend for another few seconds of pokémon cuteness, preferably without Lil’ Deadpool’s incongruous horniness spoiling the mood.

-Brandon Ledet

Pokémon: The Movie 2000 (2000)

As a film series, Pokémon does little to bring outsiders into the fold, assuming all of the clueless parents & professional critics dragged into seeing its individual movies in isolation are familiar with the full canon of its various television series, trading cards, Nintendo games, manga, and so on. There’s a huge time jump in adventures between the first Pokémon film, Mewtwo Strikes Back, and this follow-up, Pokémon: The Movie 2000, that’s even more confusing than the jumbled inconsistencies in their titles. In the Missing Adventures between these two titles, gaps presumably filled by the televised anime series, our hero Ash has acquired far more pokémon & travel partners we don’t have any time to meet before the new plot kicks in. His worried mother is apparently now in the picture as well and the animation style has evolved to include more aid from CGI. The series’ dedication to a Just Another Adventure ethos is entirely baffling to those on the outside looking in and is doing me no favors as I attempt to get acclimated to its pocket monster-infested universe, but I’m sure 90s Kids™ who regularly watched the television show were stoked to see an extended episode of something they loved dearly projected large & loud with the reverence of a summertime blockbuster.

The plot in this uninclusive sequel concerns a wealthy pokémon collector who disrupts the balance of Nature when he starts hunting rare, big game pokétypes. After overreaching narration explains that fire, ice, and lightning are the elements that control the ocean (huh?!) the villainous collector is shown catching the corresponding pokémon that command those elements from their posts in a very specific set of small islands (Lugia, Articuno, Zapdos, Moltres, all of which had significance in a recent rollout within the Pokémon Go game). Ash & his pokébuds happen to arrive on those same islands (the chances!), where they’re greeted by Princess Mononoke-style tribes who speak of a Chosen One (Ash, duh) who can restore order to their realm. With the help of a Team Rocket face turn and hoards of wild, free range pokémon who show up just to pitch in (due to being more in tune with the ebb & flow of Nature than humans, of course), Ash is able to fulfill his Destiny and free the captured pokémon to restore their balance of power over the islands and the oceans that house them. This isn’t as exciting of an obstacle as the mutated Mewtwo plot of the first film, but the evil collector & his sky ship poképrison do help establish an interesting pattern. In the first installment, a climactic fight between a stadium full of pokémon and their corresponding clones was met with a pacifist message about how violence is entirely senseless, despite “battling” being an essential aspect of pokémon culture. In Pokémon: The Movie 2000, the main evil is an act of selfish collecting of pokémon, despite “catching them all” being so essential to the series that it’s the hook of its theme song. My best guess is that the next film in the series will focus on the inherent evils of one of three possible topics: miniature monsters, naming kids Ash, or animated children’s media.

As with the first film, the pleasures & rewards of Pokémon: The Movie 2000 (or, in its more literal translation, Pocket Monsters The Movie: The Phantom Pokémon – Lugia’s Explosive Birth) are constant, but moderate. I was once again won over by the earnestness of the film’s music, especially in the opening banger “We All Live in a Pokémon World” (which includes a pokémon-themed rap breakdown) and the closing Donna Summer ballad “The Power of One,” which has since gained fame from being quoted at multiple Herman Cain political speeches (under the guise “A poet once said . . .”). Although both movies are mired in their mundane obsession over bad weather conditions disrupting travel, the sequel does make strides to develop some of its central relationships in a way that suggests narrative progress. The most prominent female character in particular, Misty, is constantly needled about her unspoken romantic feelings for Ash, much to her embarrassment. More importantly, Team Rocket is given plenty to do despite not being the central baddies. Not only do they have a role in saving the day, but Jesse & James are allowed throwaway lines about their not-so-secretly queer identities (referring to relationships with the opposite sex as “trouble”) and meta commentary about the ridiculousness of their even being a Pokémon movie: “Prepare for more trouble than you’ve ever seen. And make it double, we’re on the big screen!” The only thing this pokésequel can offer audiences is more of the same, but since “the same” is so (moderately) pleasant, that’s not so bad of a proposition.

I did walk away from Pokémon: The Movie 2000 with a new theory as to why these films were so hated by critics, however. I wasn’t previously aware that theatrical versions of these films were each proceeded by inane short films featuring fan favorite pokémon, the adorable electric rodent Pikachu. In these 20min shorts, Pikachu and other pokémon get into brightly colored hijinks with little human interference to break up their gibberish repetitions of their own names on loop (as is the pokéway). I can see how getting through one of these introductions, which play like an anime version of Teletubbies, would sour critics & parents on then following up the experience with an 80 minute adventure film that makes no effort to reach out to the uninformed. The Pikachu shorts that accompany the Pokémon movies are undeniably cute, but they likely didn’t help an already perplexed audience get in the proper, receptive mood.

-Brandon Ledet

Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999)

I’ve always interacted with the Pokémon brand from the fringes, a casual fan at best. When Pokémon reached its fever pitch popularity as a cultural presence in the United States, I happened to be making my awkward transition into a mood teen, wary of being associated with Kids’ Stuff, and embarrassingly dedicated to making nu metal the cornerstone of my Personal Brand. Still, the appeal of the “pocket monsters” that populate the Pokébrand’s various trading card collectibles, Nintendo games, and television series was always apparent to me, even if I didn’t know the intricate minutia of its Pokélore. It’s incredible that a Japanese pop culture brand has been able to get American kids hooked on collecting & trading what’s essentially a stylized version of yokai, despite having no real connection to its cultural significance. What’s even more amazing still is the longevity of that obsession. Not only has the smart phone game Pokémon Go recently reinvigorated a lot of what BuzzFeed would call 90s Kids’ interest in the brand, but in the couple decades of its international cultural presence, its output has not really subsided for those who never left. I may not personally be able to rattle off more than a handful of pokémon types off the top of my head, but after following family & friends around to the city to “catch” the little digital bastards on their phones and seeing the hordes of like-minded players doing the same in massive clusters of dork, it’s become apparent that they do have a kind of cultural longevity that can’t be ignored. This fact is convincingly backed up by the evidence that there are twenty feature length Pokémon films to date, including five that earned theatrical distribution in the United States. That’s a whole lotta catching/battling of miniature monsters.

As immediately apparent as the appeal of hoarding & imagining the staged battles of various pokémon types (that resemble creatures as varied as space aliens, dragons, ducks, and kittens) is to kids who encounter it at an early enough age, it can be exasperating to an outsider. In his 1999 review of the first Pokémon movie, Roger Ebert is stunned in his befuddlement. He spends most of the review attempting to define what pokémon even are and struggling to find reference points to entertainment media he does understand, which is how he ends up comparing the film (unfavorably) to My Neighbor Totoro. His confusion is entirely justified, to be honest. Even the film’s title, Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back, is an intimidating warning that it is not a self-contained story that can be easily grasped by the uninitiated. Mewtwo Strikes Back wastes no time explaining the gyms, stadiums, “catching,” pokéballs, teams, trainers, or even the little monsters of its world (although it does waste time elsewhere). Instead of starting with a clean slate, it functions as a 90 minute episode of the original television show. Our human heroes (Ash, Brock, and Misty) are introduced in a brief narrative paragraph about their penchant for getting into all kinds of pokémon-related adventures, but much more attention is paid to staging a pokémon match in the middle of the opening credits (complete with a dance remix of the television series’ theme music) to set the mood. If you’re new to the Pokémon universe, I’d recommend at least watching the pilot episode for the series to get a hold of the basic narrative. Otherwise, the best you’ll be able to grasp is that The Good Guys and The Bad Guys are competing To Be The Very Best in a world of tiny monsters where the main objective is to Catch Them All and train them for battle (where victory means both establishing supremacy & collecting more pokémon).

This particular episode in the Pokésaga concerns the creation and the radicalization of the titular Mewtwo, The World’s Strongest Pokémon. Much like how the rarity of certain specimen in all trading card circles (Pokémon, Magic, baseball, or otherwise) increases their value, there are rare pokémon that tower over more common types in their strength & narrative significance. According to this film, the rarest of them all is a psychic pokémon named Mew, so much so that it’s considered by most trainers to be extinct. An Evil Corporation (the standard go-to villain for kids’ media) that seems tied to the series’ Team Rocket baddies employs scientists to clone this long lost creature, which resembles a hybrid between a kitten & a space alien, into a more powerful form, known as Mewtwo. Bigger, stronger, and more leopard-like than Mew, Mewtwo is essentially the nuclear bomb of pokémon, even leaving behind a mushroom cloud in his wake as he destroys the scientists who created him. He’s so psychically powerful that he can control the weather with the wave of a finger, but he struggles with questions like “But why am I here?” is his RoboCop-inspired rise to sentience. Mewtwo does eventually find meaning in his own existence: righting what he perceives to be a power imbalance between pokémon and their human trainers based in his interactions with his evil Team Rocket creators. Believing that “Humans and pokémon can never be friends” and that pokémon have disgraced themselves by serving humans as slaves, Mewtwo crafts an army of pokémon “superclones” to attack the world’s greatest trainers, hoping to level society so that it can be properly rebuilt. Ash & his travel companions, of course, became central figures in this massive battle and just barely hold their own against Mewtwo thanks to the help of other trainers and (*gasp*) the original Mew. In the heat of the battle, Ash sacrifices himself to save his closest pokémon companion, fan favorite Pikachu, and is turned to stone. The pokémon in the battle bring him back to life with their magical monster tears and, realizing he was wrong about the human exploitation of pokémon, Mewtwo calls off his revolution and flies his superclones off to Pokéheaven or somewhere pokéadjacent.

You can tell as soon as the title that Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back will have no real finality as a self-contained story and will ultimately function as Just Another Episode within the larger Pokémon brand. Given that same ongoing narrative structure’s popularity in popular media like pro wrestling, soap operas, and The MCU, that’s not necessarily a problem. The film does little to wow anyone who’s not already devoted to the Pokémon brand, but it’s entertaining enough as a kids’ fantasy animation to feel worthwhile. Its various monster battles are old-fashioned kaiju fun, Picachu & Mew are absurdly cute character designs, and the hand-drawn animation is much more complex, & visually interesting than what modern CG kids’ media has devolved into (especially considering the recent release of The Emoji Movie). I can only point to a few details where Mewtwo Strikes Back‘s novelty amounted to much more than that. Besides the absurdity of the title and climactic choices to treat both Ash and Pikachu as christ-like figures (complete with a hilariously tragic Turn the Other Cheek sequence), I can really only single out the final battle as a must-see highlight. Clones of various pokémon fight their originating doubles to the point of fatal exhaustion while a heartfelt acoustic ballad titled “Brother My Brother” overpowers the soundtrack with bleeding heart cheese. Lyrics demand “Tell me, what are we fighting for?” and the movie takes a strong, tear-filled “Fighting is meaningless & horrible” stance of pacifism, despite being a part of a universe where battling for supremacy over other trainers is everything. The narration’s ponderings about “the great mystery and the great miracle” of Life sometimes approach the over-the-top absurdity of that “Brother My Brother” scene, but the movie generally lacks that kind of energy throughout. At the very least, there are some glaring missed opportunities in Mewtwo’s abuse of pokémon cloning technology, which could have easily led to to some Cronenbergian pokémonstrosities radically different than the ones that regularly appear on the television show. Instead, we’re treated to exactly the kinds of entertainment offered by the show, just for a longer stretch of time.

I sympathize with Ebert’s desperate in-over-his-head feeling in being assigned to professionally review this movie, which he had no real business watching. Even having a longterm semi-familiarity with pokélore, I found myself frequently confused with rules of the universe established in Mewtwo Strikes Back, especially in regards to the volume & variety of particular pokémon types and the scope of the evil Team Rocket. As there are nineteen more feature films in this series (the most recent of which was released just this year), that sense of knowing the rules of the Pokéverse is either more easily grasped by those who regularly play the brand’s various video & card games or doesn’t matter at all, even to devotees. Maybe watching more of these features will better acclimate me to the rules of its lore, but I’m going to need a lot more of that “Brother My Brother” absurdity to carry me across the finish line if that’s the kind of dedication it requires. Pikachu is pretty damn cute, but not cute enough to pull all that weight on their little electric rat back alone.

-Brandon Ledet