The Bad Movie Report

Pokémon: The First Movie

First, a confession that will cause me to be ostracized by my fellow parents and any and all teachers of my acquaintance to jump up and down and hoot like the denizens of Planet of the Apes: I like Pokémon. Those of you with me from the beginning might remember a graphic that used to sit at the bottom of my front page: I'm A Pokémon Trainer! After setting up the equipment with which I earn my living, there's usually a half-hour or so of downtime. Out comes the Game Boy Color and Pokémon Yellow.

While I don't feel the need to explain the exact nature of Pokémon - just find a whining child in any department store, and chances are they are pointing at something Pokémon related - a few words about the cartoon is probably in order.

Concept art for the "Dragonriders of Pern" TV seriesFirst of all, Pokémon takes place in a typically bizarre parallel-dimension Earth, which is a hodgepodge of high-tech cities and small towns existing peacefully in huge stretches of wilderness, which is the home of the wild Pokémon, some 300 different species of them (it was a mere 151, until the new season promised to add another 150). The Pokémon all seem rather intelligent, and exhibit anthropomorphism to one degree or another; they even converse with each other, although the only thing they are capable of saying is their own name ("Bulbasaur! Bulbasaur bulbasaur bulbasaur," translates as "We are all meandering through an unfeeling universe, guided only by an illusory construct called our conscience.").

A lot of the industry on this world - at least the industries that drive the stories of the animated series - are Pokémon-based. The biggest seems to be Pokémon-training, as trainers pit their teams of Pokémon against each other in gladiatorial games, though the only recompense seems to be badges won at sponsored matches and bragging rights (we could also, I suppose, be concerned that this seems a form of legalized cockfighting, but if you're concerned about that you're being too much of an adult!). Fights are never to the death, only until one Pokémon is incapacitated, sort of like a wrestler being unable to break a pin. It seems to be a cheerfully Socialist world, only without the long lines. There are free Pokémon Centers in each city, which treat injured or ailing Pokémon, and all of which are staffed by the same nurse, Joy (There is also only one cop in each town, and each one is Officer Jenny - cloning ran amuck on this world a long time ago, but there were only two subjects, both female, and both apparently exceptional at their job).

Yes, that's a psychic Pokémon.  Yes, Uri Gellar is suingIt's the aggressive undertone - the constant fighting - that most children seem to respond to, and causes parents some dismay when it spills over into their social lives. After all, if Pikachu and Ivysaur tussle and headbutt each other on TV, why can't they do it on the playground? Well, there is a simple answer to that, as my son discovered the first time he tried headbutting a playmate: it hurts. Violent physical interaction is never as one-sided as entertainment would like you to believe (I think Jackie Chan's the only one that makes a point of showing that hitting someone also hurts your fist). Rather than use this as an object lesson of the difference between fantasy (anything on TV) versus reality (the bleeding, crying playmate and your own aching head and tears), most parents would simply prefer that the TV series go away , presuming that this will similarly cause the behavior to go away.

Not likely. When I was a child, I could turn anything into a gun, and if children today can't show similar ingenuity, it's because their imaginations have been stunted. And observation in the field shows (thank God) that today's kids haven't been ground down that far - they still have the unfettered power of their dreams. And I'm afraid aggressive tendencies are fairly hardwired into the process of developing a feeling of one's place in the world, and to what extent one controls one's environment.

A scene from the new, Jerry Springer-produced cartoon.No, on the subject of violent programming leading to violence in real life, I point the finger in an unexpected direction: the shows that feature cleaned-up violence. Safe violence. I think the worst offender in that realm was G.I. Joe, in which everyone raced through heavy laser fire without ever suffering a scratch. I would far rather children watched Robotech, which, even though the Macross episodes were cleaned up for oh-so-fragile American youth, still contained the message that in armed conflicts, people bled, died, and their loved ones wept.

I was talking about Pokémon, wasn't I? Somewhere in there?

"But Doctor," I am told, "the kids are getting into fistfights over the figures! Over the cards!!" I'm sorry, but I see no difference between this and fighting over who gets to play with the choo-choo next. Nobody suggests banning the choo-choo*. I'm a radical; I suggest some actual parenting might be in order.

Oh, the TV show. We were talking about the TV show.

I told you the Mod Squad  movie would suck.The show's hero is Ash Ketchum (Catch 'em! Get it? Hah?), a young boy who leaves home in search of adventure and in hopes of becoming "The greatest Pokémon trainer in the world!". He is started on this course by the kindly Professor Oak, who gives him a recently-captured Pikachu (a cute and exceptionally marketable yellow rodent capable of generating electricity). Ash and Pikachu adhere strictly to buddy-movie law by beginning their saga despising each other but eventually gaining each other's respect and friendship. Well, not too eventually, as it's only a half-hour show, but you get my drift. Ash is also accompanied by Misty, a somewhat less aggressive trainer, and Brock, who is studying to be a Pokémon breeder.

Pokémon are captured with devices called Pokéballs (which echo the toys' origin dispensed from vending machines). Think of them as small genie lamps - the balls keep the Pokémon safe and easily portable until they are needed. Pikachu, as a supporting character, refuses to ride around in a Pokéball, and is thus more easily a part of the adventures. Interestingly, several of Ash's Pokémon were not captured, but seem to follow him of their own accord.

Now the reason I like Pokémon is that it actually does have underlying lessons that are not ground clumsily into your face, which is a flaw of a lot of children's programming - there are actual values that form the basis of the You know what this is?  This is comedy.stories, rather than a hastily tacked-on moral or (worse yet) sermonette at the end of the episode. The values most prevalent are friendship, responsibility, and sportsmanship, and none of these are bad traits to nurture.

The lessons run deeply and obviously throughout the series, but generally in the form of actions, not words, which makes them more enduring. Ash gains one of his Pokémon when another trainer abandons it to die, thinking it worthless. At one point, when Ash is lost in a snowstorm, he wraps his jacket around his Pokéballs rather than himself, hoping to save his charges. The matches with other trainers are fought seriously, but each trainer generally plays by the rules, and each compliments the others' achievements after the match, and part friends.

And it's important to note that when Ash finally made it into a League match, he loses - because he had, up to that point, gotten by quite well on luck and instinct - and did not take training seriously enough. Just as those damn Frosted Flake commercials finally started admitting that eating their cereal might not be enough, you also needed to actually practice to hit a home run, Pokémon reveals that there is no short cut to being a winner. It takes hard work. And it's to the writers' credit that Ash is allowed to act his age after his loss and be an unsympathetic, sullen brat for a while, until he realizes the lessons that can be learned in defeat.

Yes, yes, Zap, very interesting.  NEXT!!!Yep, I like the TV show. Too bad I hate the movie.

The movie starts with an expedition to deepest, darkest Pokélandia where, in some ruins, they discover a fossilized hair, which they believe to be a remnant of the Mew, "the rarest Pokémon". Faster than you can say Spielberg, the resident mad Pokéscientist derives some DNA from the fossil, hoping to come up with a Pokémon "powerful enough to survive the cloning process". If I'm not too far mistaken, the scientist appears to be modeled on the scientist that originally created Astro Boy back in the old early 60's series. Nice to see the occasional nod to Osamu Tezuka, the sensei of animé.

Well, they succeed, and being scientists, they have to tamper in God's domain, and all that, improving the Pokémon to the point that its psychic powers are way off the charts. They name it Mewtwo, and it doesn't take kindly to being a scientific experiment. To put it mildly, he wipes the island laboratory off the face of the Earth.

'Help me, Obi-Wan, you're my only hope'?  Where did you GET this?This is observed by a shadowy figure in a helicopter, who confronts Mewtwo and promises to help it hone its powers and discover its "purpose". Since this figure's face is always in the shadows (no matter the lighting conditions) and is constantly stroking a Persian (also a type of Pokémon), we know he is up to no good. Pokémaniacs will recognize him as Giovanni, the evil head of Team Rocket, an organization that wants to take over the world using Poké-technology. Of course, when he reveals to Mewtwo that its "purpose" is to act as a tool for Team Rocket's world conquest (yep, he's stupid as a Bond villain), the psychic monster destroys that place, too, and escapes to form its own plans.

Which brings us to our three young heroes, who receive an invitation from a master Pokémon trainer to a tournament. Ash and his posse journey to a nearby city to take a ferry to the tournament's island, only to find that an extreme storm has closed down the ferry, and to make matters worse, the local Pokémon Center is also closed, as it's Nurse Joy has mysteriously vanished...

Concept Art from 'The Abyss' TV seriesAsh and several of the other trainers impetuously travel to the island anyway, using the various powers of their Pokémon. It proves a dangerous trip, but Ash, Brock and Misty finally find themselves in the presence of the missing Nurse, who has been hypnotized by the unknown Pokémaster: Mewtwo, who whipped up the storm itself to ensure that only the strongest Pokémon made it there.

Mewtwo, it seems, has perfected the cloning process responsible for its creation, and sets to work capturing the freshly arrived Pokémon and making evil clones of them. Ash, of course, will bravely follow Pikachu down to the bowels of Mewtwo's fortress to rescue it and the other Pokémon. Adding to the confusion is the portion of Team Rocket we all know and love - Jessie, James, and their Pokémon, Meowth - one of the only two Pokémon who can talk (in a Jersey accent, no less). Bungling and rather likable - they've been allowed a few sympathetic moments in the series - they usually serve as the villains, trying to steal everyone's Pokémon, particularly the rather rare Pikachu.

Law and Order: Special Pokémon UnitNot to mention that the actual Mew shows up, and its a friendlier, playful, more positive-outlook kinda guy than its mutated clone, which leads to a running zap-battle above Mewtwo's stadium while the good Pokémon fight their evil clones below. The trouble with clones fighting each other is that they're evenly matched , and the monsters basically fall to simply exchanging blows. When Ash attempts to intervene, he catches a stray zap and gets turned to stone. Not to worry, though, as the plight of the mourning Pikachu causes all the Pokémon to stop fighting, and the tears of the assembled monsters bring Ash back to life. Mewtwo realizes the error of his ways, and turns back time so everyone will forget this ever happened, while he, Mew and the clones go off to find their destiny. Awwwwww....


Next on Fox:  When Hamster Balls Collide!Remember what I said about the morals of the story being told through actions and not sermons? Not here. Mewtwo must soliloquize or everyone else - including Team Rocket - must moralize and speechify over why fighting is wrong, rendering the morals not only offensively obvious, but tediously overwrought, to boot. Fighting is wrong? Okay, that's fine, but isn't the Pokémon way of life rooted in conflict? How do you reconcile that?

The movie is subtitled, Mewtwo versus Mew, yet this dramatic conflict serves only as a backdrop to the grinding, useless Pokémon vs. Pokémon fight. The final product is sadly and ultimately pointless as the former bad guy makes everything go away, along with any lessons that may have been learned - cripes, why not have everything be a dream, while we're at it? Ash's "death" is simply the last nail in the coffin for me - how can I react in anyway but a negative manner to such a ham-fisted attempt to manipulate my emotions?

I remember Roger Ebert passing over this movie with a mere five-second clip and the utterance that it was "worthless". I'm generally discomfited in no small way when I have to agree with him. The movie does not use its time wisely to explore interesting themes, or I don't know about you, but this is how I remember the 2000 presidential debates.expand upon characters we already know. It rarely rises above the limited animation of the TV series. Much as I hate to say it, this movie exists simply to make money, and it certainly did that. The TV series has a certain charm and innocence, and in an attempt to create an "ultimate showdown" type of situation, it surrendered that charm and descended irrecoverably into deadening cliché and preaching. Too bad.

On the other hand, the short that begins the movie, "Pikachu's Vacation", is thoroughly delightful and often trippy. Fortunately, it is at the very beginning of the tape. I can enjoy it and then leave my son to his "Monsters who fight! They fight!"



- January 20, 2001