Mar 03

Movie March – Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!

I Chu-Chu-Choose You

March has arrived, not that you’d know from the winter wonderland outside. But that also means it’s time for the return of Movie March! We ran this back in 2014 as well as last year, and if you’re new here, it means you can look forward to a bunch of animated movie reviews throughout the month!

And to start, we’re looking at the latest Pokémon film that celebrated 20 years of the anime by retelling the origin story and first adventures of Ash for a new generation who… well, probably weren’t born back in 1997. But is Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! a pure nostalgia fest or a creative update for decades old writing? Let’s have a look…

Well, for the first 12 minutes, it is undeniably the former, retelling the events of the first episode. We see Ash sleep in late, meet Pikachu, try and fail to impress him, anger a flock of Spearow, and prove his love and devotion towards his Pokémon, winning his future bestie over. Some of it’s been edited for time, and characters like Misty and Dexter retconned as they’re not in this movie, but it still hits all the main beats of Ash’s origins.

It’s as that plot comes to an end, and Ho-Oh flies overhead, that the film starts to reveal the new story it plans to tell. With 20 years of lore established, and over 700 Pokémon to play with, this leaps upon the chance to modernise some of the original Kanto arc. Ash gets a Rainbow Wing, and we learn that this could make him the Rainbow Hero of legend, destined to fight Ho-Oh. Why? Look man, Ho-Oh needs this, he never got a movie or even an episode in the show.

This does mean a lot of usually important elements get downplayed rather a lot. Gotta catch ’em all? Nah, Ash only gets two more additions to his squad in the whole film. Badges? You see Ash fighting Erica at one point, but that’s about all that plot gets mentioned. And if you were hoping to see Ash develop from novice to veteran like he does during the first few years, bad news. He starts off just fine, with no real character flaws or even a hint of inexperience.

Characters are in fact where this film never even remotely gets it together. Not too long in, after a scuffle with Entei, we’re introduced to the travelling companions of the film, Verity and Sorrel. Verity takes a bunch of nods from DP’s Dawn, coming from Sinnoh and using a Piplup, but has a few family issues stemming from being the daughter of the region’s champion, Cynthia (though that’s never stated, just shown in a picture). Sorrel is another Sinnoh native, trying to be a professor and learn about Pokémon after getting over his fear of becoming close to Pokémon when one of his died as a child.

Those could be interesting arcs… but the film doesn’t even entertain that idea. Sorrel got over his problems before meeting Ash, and Verity’s mother gets all of 30 seconds, with her insecurities seemingly washed away by the other two going “nah she’d love you anyway”. The two are of little consequence throughout and are only there so Ash has humans to talk to and to pad out the numbers in larger battles. And don’t even get me started on the film’s attempt to replicate the entire Bye Bye Butterfree arc in about three minutes of footage.

And then we have the “villains”. No, I don’t mean Team Rocket, who blast off not once not twice but thrice having never interacted with any of the main cast at any point. You have Marshadow, the “Guide from the Shadows”, and Cross, who represents a fusion of Damian and Paul (if those names mean anything to you). Except neither of them are evil, per se, or at least not consistently so.

Marshadow, who had been living in Entei’s shadow waiting to find the next Rainbow Hero, latches onto Ash when he sees him bandying about the feather. After he loses a battle, it’s implied Marshadow enhances his negativity, leading to Ash abandoning his buddies and Pikachu, before collapsing from exhaustion and loneliness and getting sent to a weird world where Pokémon don’t exist. As Ash is at his darkest moment, we see the Rainbow Wing lose its colour, implying things are going wrong… before Ash easily finds his way out in a minute or two and the wing lights up again, making that kind of anti-climatic. But hey, we know Marshadow is the villain trying to lead Rainbow Heroes astray.

But wait! We’re then told Marshadow is actually there to seal away the evil and restore lustre to the Rainbow Wing (completely at odds to that scene above), and is merely an observer to those on the journey to meet Ho-Oh. Which is then contradicted again when he grabs the once more darkened feather in the climax and mind controls dozens of Pokémon to try and literally kill the main cast, to the point of destroying the feather. Like I said, no consistency.

Cross is handled a bit better. Following the classic “might is right” template the series has had 20 years to perfect, he is a perfect foil for Ash, abandoning his weak Charmander, letting his Pokémon get beat up so they can become even stronger, and mad that a weakling like Ketchum was destined to meet Ho-Oh and not him. It’s a bit weird how we see him stalking the group a few times, but he’s a cool rival. Who the film implies to have a heart of evil. And I mean, sure, he’s a dick, but evil? Nah.

And that’s kind of a problem. The film makes both Marshadow and Cross out to be villains and heroes at different points, which makes for a confusing narrative and an unsatisfying conclusion. Speaking of which, the final five minutes are a mess, including the much talked about scene where Pikachu speaks the Queen’s English with little build, and the (spoiler) death and rebirth of Ash. Yes. That really happens.

I do want to stress though, that despite my negativity towards a lot of the writing, I don’t think its all bad. The streamlining of Charmander’s storyline, for instance, which takes out all the anger and distrust and just focuses on recovering from the abuse he received, is a much better arc. And keeping Ash to two or three ‘mon means they can better ensure they all have an (attempted) arc and personality instead of spreading it across a dozen or more critters, which would be a tricky task in 90 minutes, especially in a film more aimed towards newer viewers. Why bother with Krabby when you can have Butterfree?

There’s some genuinely great scenes too. The all too brief foray into a world where Pokémon don’t exist does wonders for showing how Ash still wants to explore and see the world even when he’s stuck in a standard school environment, and the climax of the movie parodying the events from the start (the end of the first episode, in particular) is a brilliant nod, especially when it all goes wrong. Those moments serve to prove that the idea of this movie had plenty of potential, even if it never realises it.

The other curio to me is that there was another poorly written mess of a Pokémon series, and this has the same strength that arc did. XY was badly written but looked great, and so does this. Bright rainbows, vivid flames, ominous shadows and drained palettes, I Choose You! nails the aesthetic. I like the character designs too, including Ash’s mild redesign which manages to be both new and classic at the same time. And the battles, as much as they are more about throwing power moves at each other, come across as cool and impactful.

I only wish I could say the same for the rest of it. On a conceptual level, this should be great, a film that cherrypicks the best stories from the first 80 episodes or so, while using an iconic moment to craft a story that focuses on the one legendary Pokémon who never really got his time in the sun (in the anime). But a lot of those arcs lose focus and impact as they’re edited down for a 90 minute movie, and the new content struggles to remain consistent even within the same scene, as Marshadow repeatedly proves. It ain’t the worst Pokémon film, but it ain’t the one I’d choose to rewatch again either.

So ends the first Movie March 2018 article! We’ll be putting at least one of these up a week, and hopefully more, but I’m also focusing on blasting through series ready for the Top Ten at the end of the month, so no promises there. Until next time!