My obsession for Pokemon began when I was 10 years old. Fifth grade had just started and there was a new weird-looking cartoon on in the mornings. All it took was one episode to get me hooked. Apparently that was true of everyone else around the world because before I knew it, Pokemon had blown up into something beyond imagine. And I couldn’t get enough of it. You can all imagine how excited I got when I realized that there was going to be a movie coming to theaters. My mother took me, and my best friend at the time, to see the movie and I managed to snag all those promo cards that were given out. Naturally, we loved it. But what about now?
I checked good ol’ Rotten Tomatoes to see that their overall scoring is. It isn’t good. It sits firmly at a 14% with critics clamoring that it’s a boring and cliched retread of Princess Mononoke, but with worse art and even worse dialogue. Geeze. It can’t be that bad… right?
For this review, I’m not only examining the Mewtwo Strikes Back (released as The First Movie here), but also Mewtwo Returns, which was the hour-long follow up movie that released in 2001 and included the original 10 minutes that were cut from the beginning of the movie. Yeah, I bet you didn’t know that 10 whole minutes got cut from the film because 4Kids Entertainment felt it was too dark for American audiences. It examines the origins of Mewtwo, along with the motives behind the experiment itself. See, Giovanni wanted the most powerful Pokemon for his gym (and I’m sure other Team Rocket motives), so he funded the cloning research of a scientist desperate to bring back his dead daughter on the condition that Mewtwo be an end result. As the Pokemon develop, along with Amber (scientist’s daughter clone), they all meet within a psychic plane to discuss the meaning of life before most of them fade off into… well, they die. Heartbroken, Mewtwo starts to rage before he’s quickly sedated to help subvert those memories. By the time he’s fully developed, he isn’t sure whether what happened before was a dream or reality, but he’s kind of cranky either way.
That’s where out western cut comes in. I watch this about once a year whenever I start feeling a little nostalgic, so I’m more than familiar with the film. The basic plot is this: Mewtwo is created in a lab for Team Rocket leader Giovanni, who intends on using him to advance his Pokemon gym and all other TR schemes. Mewtwo doesn’t like this idea, so he blows everyone and everything up and sets out to destroy all of humanity as punishment for their wrongdoings…
…but not before inviting some top trainers to his newly built island. There, a battle between Pokemon and their (thanks to Mewtwo) cloned counterparts duke it out until Ash selflessly sacrifices himself to stop the fighting; which turns him to stone for… reasons. As all the Pokemon cry, their tears revive Ash and it’s this that opens Mewtwo’s heart. He learns that all life is precious and valuable, regardless of birth. He wipes everyone’s mind and sets off to find sanctuary for him and his cloned gang.
These events are followed by Mewtwo Returns, where we learn that Giovanni is in pursuit of Mewtwo. Since he wasn’t on the island at the time, Giovanni hasn’t had his memory wiped like the others. As what will become a reoccurring theme, Ash and the gang find themselves in the middle of all this by being in the right place at the right time. Secluded on Mt. Quena in the Johto region, Mewtwo finds solitude and peace with his Pokmon clones; becoming their protector.
Through an elite military team, Giovanni finds the whereabouts of Mewtwo and quickly moves in, using the other Pokemon as leverage in an attempt to get what he wants. Giovanni succeeds, and uses Mt. Quena as his new operations base, until Ash and the gang intervene. Mewtwo is freed from his mind suppressors thanks to Ash, and uses his last bit of strength to fend off Team Rocket and Giovanni. On the brink of death, Mewtwo falls into the waters surrounding the area, which are said to have healing powers because of how pure and clean it is. Naturally, Mewtwo is healed by the waters and realizes that he must be a real Pokemon despite his birth. Ash decides that he doesn’t want to have his memory wiped from the event and swears that he’ll never speak of this place again.
(as a side note, this has to be true to the point that Ash legitimately forgets Mewtwo entirely– as seen in Genesect and the Legend Awakened. This features another Mewtwo who can mega evolve, and Ash never brings up anything about Mewtwo or how this one is different. I find this odd, since it implies that Team Rocket must have had other successful cloning operations.)
Let’s take off the nostalgia glasses and examine the movies. Given the time period, anime wasn’t really in full swing here in the US. Television focused mainly on what would sell to kids and mainstream movies came in the form of a few Miyazaki films. Hardcore anime fans could find very expensive videos of various other anime titles in a couple specialized stores. Often, what we did get was very localized and censored for a wider audience. By watching strictly the version that was released for 4Kids, and not being super familiar with the content or its context, Pokemon the First Movie doesn’t come off as a cinematic masterpiece. In fact, it doesn’t even come off as being that great or original. It’s just an extremely predictable movie that tries to come across as being philosophical, without actually hitting the nail on the head entirely. And so, I understand the poor reviews from critics. In an era where our majors movies were masterpieces from Miyazaki, Pokemon is shit by comparison.
If I put the glasses back on, I see an entirely different thing. By no means is this a good movie. It heavily borrows themes and cliches from various other movies and anime series and tells them to the tune of Pokemon. On top of that, our edit was watered-down censor that made it kid-friendly the best it could. Yet, none of that seems to matter when I watch the movie. It’s a nostalgic trip back to a simpler time, when the world seemed hopeful and bright. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to let Pokemon go after all these years; it’s a return to innocence. The second that theme music stares playing, my eyes tear up and I’m filled with overwhelming glee, as though it’s the first time I’ve seen the movie. I’m sure that 20 years down the line, I’ll still look back on this movie with the same insight I do now.
Pokemon was (and still is) huge. If you didn’t grow up with Pokemon, then this movie is never going to be for you. You’re not going to get it because you were never actively engaged in it. And that’s okay. In fact, you were likely annoyed in the late 90s until Pokemon eventually leveled off and wasn’t in your face everywhere you went. But, for me, it’s a phenomenon that I can’t even explain that goes deeper than a crappy kids anime about people befriending monsters.