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.