Looking back, it’s impossible to overstate just how much of a global phenomenon Pokémon was. For reasons that no one has been able to fully explain, the quest to catch all 151 original Pocket Monsters via video game, trading card and television was one that consumed children the world over for a few glorious, if sudden, years.
Nintendo’s franchise arguably reached its peak in 1999, when the adequately titled Pokémon: The First Movie roared into cinemas around the world. Now, over two decades later (stop me if you suddenly feel as old as I just made myself feel) comes a full CGI remake of the film.
This is the twenty-fourth Pokémon movie and alongside last year’s live action Detective Pikachu, may well be the movie that has stirred the most audience interest in years. That’s largely down to its being a reboot, and whilst it’s difficult to believe you’re reading this review if you don’t already know the plot, here’s a brief summary: genetically-created superbad Pokémon Mewtwo calls the greatest trainers from around the world to a secluded island under the guise of a super-tournament, purely to defeat, steal and clone their Pokémon so that he can take control of the world from the humanity that has wronged him for literally his entire life. Sound good? Ok.
It’s child fare at its most basic that in the 24 years and 8 “generations” since has proved difficult to replicate. No real surprise, then, that the current cinematic climate has resulted in this story being told “anew” (although the story is for all intents and purposes the same). The film clocks in just over twenty minutes longer than the original – although that’s only the case for viewers outside of Japan, as the prologue detailing Mewtwo’s origins seen here was actually in the full version of the movie in its homeland. Other than that, barring a few tweaks to dialogue and Team Rocket’s sea-faring disguises, there’s not much different (although Blessid Union of Soul’s melodramatic track Brother My Brother is gone, as is most of Meowth’s role as the movie’s conscience, both of which are pretty close to a cardinal sin).
And yet… Look, Pokémon: The First Movie is about as child-friendly as it gets. It’s not a story that was ever going to win any awards for its scriptwriting, and almost anyone of an adult age that still adores it (myself included) does so out of a mixture of nostalgia and unashamed bias for all things Pokémon. So surely, if a movie retells the same story, then it should be just as fun to watch. Right?
Not so. That’s because the real concern going into this film, as was the case for last year’s Ryan Reynolds-fronted feature, was over how the new visuals were going to stand up. Even in its heyday, Pokémon always looked best on a sheet of trading cards or a 3-inch square Game Boy screen. The bigger screen visuals have never been entirely ground-breaking, but that is of course part of the series’ charm – from the debut of the TV show in the late 90s up to last year’s The Power of Us, the look of Pokémon has remained steadfast and recognisable.
Unfortunately, this new CGI reimagining steals away much of that identity.
Detective Pikachu undeniably did a grand job with a new visual pallet for the series, but that was to blend the creatures with a live-action world – something fans had been demanding for years. A complete animated re-awakening seems a much-less desirable issue and whilst the furry textures of Rob Letterman’s film last year prove an inspiration, there’s not much else to champion from an aesthetic point of view. Yes, the attacks of the Pokémon – from blazing flamethrowers to swerving shadow balls – do look better than ever before, but otherwise it all looks a little more like modern-day Saturday morning kids shows Paw Patrol or PJ Masks than a cinematic adventure befitting a decades-old household name. Of course, such young audiences have always been Pokémon’s target demographic, so perhaps such an update may have been necessary to attract the contemporary “kid crowd” which may have little interest in watching a 24-year old film whose greatest visual appeal is in its “charming” personality.
Truly, if there is one thing this remake lacks aside from the visual style, it’s the same thing that almost every Pokémon movie has lacked – the mystique of the big screen. Many of the more recent entries have seemed merely feature length episodes of the anime, whereas The First Movie, and the two that followed, felt like stories that demanded a larger format. In attempting to recreate the original experience, this film feels a little synthetic; the story beats are there, but the fresh and exciting feeling of new additions to the Pokémon mythology is missing. The global Netflix release also takes away any chance of a cinematic exhibition that was much of the original’s appeal.
Mewtwo Strikes Back – Evolution should best be treated as an experiment. It has a uniquely modern release and update that even its psychic antagonist could scarcely dream of, even featuring cinema’s most fashionable cliché – a post-credits sequel tease. Watch it out of curiosity if nothing more but be warned: if you’re looking for a dose of Poké-nostalgia, then pick up your old Game Boy for a less distracting experience.