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"POKÉMON THE FIRST MOVIE"
(1999) (voices of Veronica Taylor, Philip Bartlett) (G)

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QUICK TAKE:
Children's Animated: A team of human Pokémon trainers battle a cloned and all-powerful Pokémon who's determined to rid the world of humans and their trained Pokémon alike.
PLOT:
In a world where human beings own and train their Pokémon creatures to battle one another, the rarest such creature is Mew, a benign floating being that few have ever seen. Yet after human scientists discover a fossilized hair sample from Mew, they clone and re-engineer the creature into Mewtwo. While they were successful at creating the most powerful Pokémon ever, the sentient being, who longs to understand his place in the world, decides he must destroy all humans and their trained Pokémon.

Meanwhile Ash Ketchum and his young trainer friends, Misty and Brock, are relaxing one day when Ash is challenged by another trainer. With the aid of his first Pokémon, the electrified Pikachu, Ash easily wins and proves he's one of the best trainers around. Thus, it doesn't come as much of a surprise when he and his friends are invited to a party hosted by someone who claims to be the world's greatest Pokémon trainer.

Eager to prove their mettle, Ash and his friends set out for New Island, but are unknowingly followed by Ash's arch rivals, Jessie, James and their Pokémon mascot, Meowth who collectively make up Team Rocket. With only a few trainers making it through a storm to the island, Ash and the others discover to their surprise that the great master is none other than Mewtwo.

Learning that the megalomaniacal Pokémon plans to clone the existing Pokémon into genetically superior beings and thus rid the world of the originals and their human trainers, Ash and his friends, along with their Pokémon and an appearance by the original Mew, do what they can to stop Mewtwo and his evil plans.

OUR TAKE: 1 out of 10
Once upon a time, movies existed as self-contained units designed to entertain, enthrall and/or elicit other emotions by telling compelling stories. Sometime in the past, however, someone figured out that studios could sell ancillary products based on the movie -- such as toys, soundtracks and books -- and the big movie marketing blitz was born.

Thus, it's rare nowadays to find a movie that doesn't have some sort of promotional or commercial tie-in. From a business standpoint, it's smart and often generates more revenue than the picture itself. Yet, now there's a disturbing new trend -- perhaps not started but clearly exacerbated by the release of "Pokémon The First Movie" -- where the film solely exits to hawk a product initially not connected to any film- related product.

In fact, the studio and/or creative and financial forces behind this film have figured out how to work this arrangement both ways. For starters, the film simply stirs up the Pokémon card trading frenzy and overall phenomenon by not only reinforcing the game and its existing characters, but also introducing several new ones. Thus, that makes sure to keep the kids snatching up the cards hoping to nab the ones featuring the new characters.

The marketing stroke of genius, however, is by handing out limited edition cards of new characters with each purchase of a ticket at the theater (while supplies last). It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this will stoke most kids' desire to attend the film not only just to see it, but also to gain the opportunity to get the much coveted new cards.

For those who have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a brief Pokémon history lesson provided by the film's press kit and my nephews who are fanatics about the game and tried to explain it to this old fuddy duddy. Of course they don't realize that the only "interactive" card games we had growing up were those 3-D baseball and football cards (interactive because the background image "moved" by changing the angle of the card). Then again, those were the prehistoric days before video games (let alone Pong), VCRs or remote controls whose absences only elicit wide-eyed astonishment from today's kids about how we survived or existed before such inventions.

Anyway, back in 1996, Nintendo created the "Pocket Monster" game for its portable Game Boy system. In turn, that was adapted into an interactive, role-playing, trading card game where kids try to collect the one hundred and fifty plus cards that feature individual "Pokémon" characters designed to battle each other.

With each Pokémon having its own fighting characteristics, their human "trainers" would then pit them against each other with the match-up of their characteristics determining which character would win (with the human victor thus capturing the losing card). Kids, of course, ate this up and the phenomenon spread to other forms of media, including a top-rated TV show on "Kids' WB!"

Now the first big screen version of these wildly popular characters hits the theaters -- just in time for the holiday buying season. Originally released in Japan and directed by Kunihiko Yuyama, the picture has been "Americanized" by writers Norman J. Grossfeld, Michael Haigney and John Touhey, with new vocal direction by Michael Haigney.

So, the big question is whether the film is any good and/or will please or at least temporarily entertain its highly targeted, but quite massive audience. While kids at our screening seemed transfixed enough with what unfolded, most everyone else will probably find it to be quite bad. To compound that problem, the film doesn't even acknowledge that plenty of people old enough to drive (and older) will also be present to chaperone the card happy kids.

Simply put, this isn't much more than the kid-friendly, animated equivalent of any of those lame Jean- Claude Van Damme kickboxing tournament flicks where fighters are assembled to battle and see who wins.

By that I mean that the plot is lame, the characters are one-dimensional at best, and the writing and direction are substandard, even for a film aimed at kids (thus making one wonder what the American filmmakers actually contributed to the proceedings). Thus, it will be interesting to see how kids react to the film, since the card game is a participatory activity whereas the film is a passive one.

Beyond those issues, the quality of the animation -- stemming from the popular and hard-edged Japanese anime style -- isn't any better than what you'd see on any cartoon show made for TV. While anime can be good in its own right -- such as in "Princess Mononoke" and "Akira" -- here it appears quite bad.

With the characters looking like cardboard cutouts (and often frozen when not active) and lips barely moving (the Mewtwo character solves that by "speaking" with his mind and not his mouth), this certainly isn't anywhere near the quality of Disney's recently released, animated features.

The same holds true for character development, or lack thereof, or anything resembling more than a bare bones story. Essentially yet another variation of the old "Frankenstein" plot, this one has the man-made creature running amok and for reasons best described as inexplicable, then deciding to clone the Pokémon creatures to create his own army.

Why the omnipotent creature needs an army is never explained, but that's obviously beyond the point. After all, the movie and the card game are simply about Pokémon vs. Pokémon battles, so the presumed philosophy is "the more the merrier." Of course the film then turns one hundred and eighty degrees and delivers a forced and politically correct nonviolence message. While that's all fine and good, it comes off as more of a cheap copout and defense of the role-playing violence the card game encourages and the mayhem that occurs in this picture.

Overall, this is little more than a promotional effort to draw kids to the theater to get a free card and then encourage them to buy more of the newly introduced characters. Featuring a short film, "Pikachu's Vacation," that precedes the main attraction and not only has to be one of the worst animated films ever made but is also as far from the old vacation shorts featuring Mickey and Donald as one could possibly imagine, this is as close to cinematic torture as it gets.

With little or no imagination and questionable entertainment value, the film may appeal to kids who are hooked on this latest craze, but as a standalone movie, it's awful. We give "Pokémon The First Movie" a 1 out of 10.




Reviewed November 6, 1999 / Posted November 10, 1999


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