Wednesday November 10, 1999
Children. Their attentions wander. But not fast enough to prevent "Pokemon: The First Movie."
The Pokemon franchise, Japan's most popular export since the Toyota Camry, started as a Nintendo Game Boy. Its success begat a TV cartoon, which begat trading cards. And now, like "Rugrats," "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" before it, Pokemon is a feature film.
For kids already indoctrinated into the cult of Pokemon, the movie may add something to the ever-growing mythology surrounding the characters. For most others, it will be an appealing diversion, though by no means an exhilarating one. For those completely on the outside (read: adults), the Pokemon world is baffling, even somewhat troubling.
The Pokemon universe is complicated; there are 151 Pokemon characters, for instance, about 20 of which make appearances in the film. The human protagonist, Ash Ketchum (voiced by Veronica Taylor), and his buddies Misty and Brock are trainers. They capture these "pocket monsters," the Pokemon, teach them, and pit them against those of rival trainers. The Pokemon is a willing gladiator. The trainer is a general--he issues the commands he hopes will win the battle. The prize: possession of the Pokemon.
"Pokemon: The First Movie," sub-subtitled "Mewtwo Strikes Back," is about a powerful Pokemon gone bad. Mewtwo, a cat-like biologically engineered Pokemon clone, has more supernatural strength than any regular Pokemon. (One of the handful of adult laughs comes from Mewtwo's decidedly feline character. Pathetic humans, he tells his creators, I will not serve you. I am superior to all of you.)
Superiority complex aside, Mewtwo is racked with existential angst. "Why am I here?" he says after destroying the lab where he was created. "What is my purpose?" Well . . . fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And hate leads to suffering, right? Mewtwo sets out to wipe the trainers and their lackey Pokemon off the face of the planet.
Great Japanese animation "Pokemon" is not. ("Princess Mononoke" is still in theaters, if that's what you're after.) "Pokemon" isn't even good animation, unless the standard of measure is the crude LCD graphics of a Game Boy. The characters are flat--apparently deliberately so, to resemble the TV drawings. But unlike the TV program, the film at least contains movement that is somewhat fluid, and director Kunihiko Yuyama creates surprising angles and unexpected extreme close-ups.
The film has, however, been "Americanized." Producer Norman J. Grossfeld, voice director Michael Haigney and John Touhey essentially wrote an American script that lays like a template over the 75-minute Japanese movie. It's impossible to tell whether Yuyama's vision of the film remains intact. The most obvious change is a jarringly bad pop soundtrack that even second-graders can tell doesn't suit the film.
But it seems the Americans have made other, more subtle changes. Writer Stephanie Strom made a good case in Sunday's New York Times that the "Pokemon" TV show is steeped in Japanese values: responsibility, empathy, respect for elders, cooperation, obedience and humility. One wonders what happened to the film, then. There are no elders present or even mentioned. Only the Pokemon are obedient. There's very little teamwork between Ash and buddies. To the contrary, Ash hollers at the wicked Mewtwo, "I won't let you do that!" That's pure, undiluted American individualism.
But like most children's entertainment, the "Pokemon" themes seem disturbingly unexamined. Aspirations for world domination aside, Mewtwo objects to the enslavement of Pokemon to their trainers. Viewed in that context, Ash's declaration that he cares for his Pokemon seems eerily antebellum. The whole competition between trainers starts to look like cockfighting, or worse.
But elementary schoolers, for whom the world is still fairly two-dimensional, probably won't be bothered by such thoughts. It's the parents who might be, as they take their kid back to the theater for the fourth time to get that last "exclusive" Pokemon trading card. They will look at their child's overstuffed binder of cards, the well-worn Game Boy, and wonder if they've been had. And then the title may start to seem like a threat: "Pokemon: The First Movie."
Pokemon: The First Movie, 1999. G. Kids' WB! presents a 4Kids Entertainment production. American adaptation by Norman J. Grossfeld, Michael Haigney and John Touhey. Voice direction by Michael Haigney. Produced by Norman J. Grossfeld. Directed by Kunihiko Yuyama. Produced in Japan by Choji Yoshikawa, Tomoyuki Igarashi and Takemoto More. Japanese version written by Takeshi Shudo based on characters created by Satoshi Tajiri. Distributed by Warner Bros. Family Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Usher Raymond as Lester Dewitt. Forest Whitaker as Dante Jackson. Rosario Dawson as Stephanie Williams. Vanessa L. Williams as Audrey McDonald. Judd Nelson as Ken Knowles. Robert Ri'chard as Ziggy Malone. Veronica Taylor as Ash Ketchum. Rachel Lillis as Misty. Eric Stuart as Brock. Philip Bartlett as Mewtwo.