Pokémon‘s popularity in the late ’90s took form in many ways. There were the main Game Boy games, obviously, but even outside of that you had spin-off games, playing cards, merchandising, and, of course, the TV series. It was pretty obvious that the show was blatant narrative advertising for the games, what with its formulaic and episodic structure falling in line with what was expected of it. Still, it proved popular enough to warrant a run that continues to this day. It even managed to produce its fair share of movies, all of which, right up until this year’s Detective Pikachu, were largely panned critically and haven’t exactly stood the test of time.
It didn’t help that, being based on a video game, expectations of quality weren’t exactly “high” to begin with. Yet even amidst that, in my opinion, there’s a certain level of unexpected pandering going on in these movies that you wouldn’t think would be acceptable. Part of it could be that the show they’re based on was never high art to begin with. However, looking back specifically at the first of these movies, literally titled Pokémon: The First Movie (or Mewtwo Strikes Back, if we’re being technical), it’s pretty obvious why this movie never caught on. At least, not outside of its dedicated base of children who were already fans of the show to begin with.
“In the beginning…”
Pokémon: The First Movie takes place sometime after the show’s first season. Following some hardcore backstory involving Mewtwo, the in-universe’s first cloned Pokémon, a weirdly-cloaked lady invites Ash, Misty, and Brock to a private island to meet “the world’s greatest Pokémon master.” Braving torrential rains, the trio, together with a handful of other Pokémon trainers, discover that this Pokémon master is none other than Mewtwo himself. His goal is to clone all Pokémon and create an army to conquer the world, and it’s up to Ash and his friends to stop him. Also, there’s fighting. Lots and lots of fighting.
I remember being really excited to watch this movie as a 9-year-old, dragging my mom to the local theater to see it. I remember being captivated by how well the movie had translated the show’s appeal to the big screen, which made sense given that it was an extended TV episode to begin with. And I remember laughing at the funny parts, crying at the serious parts, and, ultimately, coming away satisfied. In short, the movie was great. I was satisfied, and I’d continue to be satisfied whenever I’d watch the movie again in the years that followed.
Memories fade as they grow older
Unfortunately, time wouldn’t prove kind to my fondness. Aside from moving on to other crazes over time, I also got older. I gained perspective, became more critical of what I consumed, and even began to realize that not everything I liked as a kid held up as an adult. And nowhere was this more apparent than in the Pokémon movies, particularly Pokémon: The First Movie.
To be fair, I doubt that the film was attempting the Oscar-level finish that something like Studio Ghibli’s fare is known for. But even amidst that, the movie’s still littered with writing issues that hold it back from being passable at best: The animation feels directly lifted from the show, with only a hint of film polish. The script becomes confused, constantly bouncing between super serious and distractingly goofy. The humor rarely works, and the emotional moments prove so bafflingly bad that they’re more funny than anything. Even the one moment that everyone remembers, where Ash turns to stone and Pikachu tries to shock him back to life, finds itself immediately undermined by the power of Pokémon tears reviving him instantly.
On the other hand…
It’s a shame, as the movie isn’t without its strengths. Despite the CGI looking dated, the animation has its bouts of directorial brilliance. The film has several atmospheric moments where only music is audible, allowing you to not only embrace Shinji Miyazaki’s excellent score but also absorb some of the finer details. They cast Mewtwo’s English VA, Philip Bartlett, perfectly, with his the only voice that doesn’t sound like a bad stereotype or a late ’90s dub performance. And the underlying themes of nature vs. nurture, self-discovery, and the importance of respecting those around you, while not always executed well, are solid foundations for a premise like this one.
For decades, Pokémon: The First Movie stood as an example of why the Pokémon IP remained better serviced as a series of video games. It wasn’t until Detective Pikachu was announced last year that there was even a semblance of hope for a quality Pokémon film. And even then, people didn’t have the highest of hopes until it came out.
A second chance
I’ll admit I wasn’t initially excited for Detective Pikachu. Sure, it looked like it had potential, but its premise didn’t exactly hook me. Plus, I’d long grown out of the Pokémon games, and video game-based movies didn’t exactly have the best reputations. That the movie ended up receiving mixed reviews didn’t help matters, either. It wasn’t until a series of misunderstandings led me to buying a ticket that I decided to give it a chance. And when I finally came out of the theaters, it left me mildly satisfied. That’s already a major step above what Pokémon: The First Movie had to offer.
Perhaps Detective Pikachu‘s biggest leverage was that it actually worked as a film first. The characters, particularly Tim and Lucy, felt like they were real characters with actual arcs. The way in which they integrated the Pokémon felt natural too, as if taking cues from Who Framed Roger Rabbit‘s playbook. The story itself, while not exactly unique, was decently executed. It even included a few moments of emotional tenderness. And at 104 minutes, the movie somehow managed to drag far less than Pokémon: The First Movie did at 75.
This isn’t to call Detective Pikachu a masterpiece — it’s got hammy acting and doesn’t take full advantage of its premise. But by being a competently made movie with a decent story, it already stands leagues above not only previous Pokémon movies, but every other video game-based movie released under the Hollywood banner. It showed that any kind of movie is possible if there’s a story that works, and it definitely got me excited for future Pokémon movies again. Because now that I know that Pokémon can work on film, then who’s to say that other video game properties can’t too? Or even sequels, while we’re at it?
Basically, the fact that Detective Pikachu even works at all is already proof of its superiority over Pokémon: The First Movie. I know that that feels almost unfair to say, but considering that kids’ movies still have to engage outside of their core audience, it’s really not that harsh a statement. Because whereas Pokémon: The First Movie is too disjointed and undercooked narratively to hold up 20 years later, I can easily see Detective Pikachu having staying power in 20 years time. Granted, I hope it’s no longer the best-reviewed video game movie by then, because that’d be depressing if it were. But I can definitely see people still getting something out of it then. I only hope that more video game movies learn from it, see what they can improve on, and follow suit.