Pokémon – The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back

(Kunihiko Yuyama & Michael Haigney, Japan, 1998)


The battleship Pokémon has at last docked in its full glory. Children already know the television series, the trading cards, the video game and the internet sites. But cinema still obviously holds some cultural prestige, even in our grubby culture of all-out, ultra-diversified merchandising – because the prospect of an animated Pokémon story on the big screen has all the allure of a special event.

Mewtwo Strikes Back begins like a horror or sci-fi movie. Sinister scientists, cowering and whispering in darkness, create an enhanced clone of the Pokémon named Mew. But where the model is benevolent and loving, Mewtwo, like Frankenstein's monster, is resentful, vengeful and bent on destruction.

From this relatively straightforward introduction, the viewer is tumbled into the more usual world of the Pokémon. Creatures with names like Squirtle, Caterpie and Charmeleon bounce and giggle in packs. The evident star of this social set is the cute, yellow Pikachu, able to channel electricity. Eventually our lovable heroes must do battle with Mewtwo and his evil army.

For a raw (and childless) newcomer like myself, any incarnation of Pokémon, in any medium, can be quite baffling, even bewildering. A little help is provided by outsider characters who attempt to classify, understand or capture these aliens-among-us.

But plenty of questions remain. Who exactly are these protean Pokémon creatures suddenly appearing in every scene? What are their powers? What is their relation to the human characters who are sometimes gifted Masters and, at other times, rather ineffectual pals?

The appeal of Pokémon for kids surely has something to do with the way they are simultaneously soft, fluffy and harmless – like ordinary domestic pets – and yet the gateway to another, more mysterious and fascinating plane of existence.

But what is the nature of this mystery and fascination? The world of Pokémon is quite unlike any previous pop mythology created for the delectation of children. It is not really a world predicated on the dramatic struggles of generations, of Christ and anti-Christ figures, or of cosmic forces – all that earnestly cornball stuff which is favoured by George Lucas or the creators of The Matrix (1999).

The events involving the Pokémon are altogether more whimsical and cyclical. Parents will search in vain for the richness of characters, moods and topics that mark such epics as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings or C. S. Lewis' Narnia series – or the more outrageous kind of pop invention that fuelled the Gremlins movies.

Geared as it is to the serious business of schoolyard trading cards, Pokémon seems far more interested in the simple multiplication of characters than it is in their meaningfulness. Pokémania inspires an almost Darwinian fervour: kids in its grip become encyclopedic experts on species, genealogies and the precise numberings of each creature.

The universe of Pokémon appears to have infinite potential for expansion and longevity, since new creatures are discovered within its stories at every turn. Of course, these characters come equipped with their own identities, origins and allegiances – and, in this movie, thanks to Mewtwo, some are doubled by evil clones.

But what's it all about, finally? The moral of this tale is as simple as it can be. The Pokémon adore competition – always challenging each other to various games, duels and tests of strength, cleverness and endurance – but competition taken past its proper limit, into aggression and outright violence, is bad. As pious lessons go, this one is OK.

The highpoint of Mewtwo Strikes Back is undoubtedly the protracted set-piece in which each Pokémon engages in fierce struggle with his or her clone. Only death can end this face-off. As the blows become slower and the proud spirits sag, director Kunihiko Yuyama takes his film to an emotive peak that recalls the classic battle sequence in Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight (1966).

Generally, however, this film is not especially impressive in the animation department. Character movements are often simple and repetitive, recalling the short-cut tactics of television technique. For English-speaking audiences, a bunch of bubble-gum pop tracks has been unfussily laid atop the action – antiseptic rap beats mixed into arrangements that would do Young Talent Time proud.

Voice-wise, the cute squeaks and squawks of the Pokémon creatures evoke a bad case of Star Wars worship. (As one young expert patiently explained to me, each Pokémon can speak only his or her own language, but can understand every other native tongue – a neat trick.)

With its high degree of sentiment and simple pacifist message, Mewtwo Strikes Back is clearly aiming for the lofty heights of The Lion King (1994). On other levels, however – and this is where the film became captivating for me – much of the imagery and detail remains resolutely Japanese in character, more like a typically surreal anime than a Disney confection.

Strange, powerful images abound – like the crashing waves in a supernaturally driven storm, or the disquieting sight of clone Pokémon being smoothly squeezed out of their incubators.

The short accompanying the feature, Pikachu's Vacation, is even less Westernised, with its odd intrusions of abstract imagery resembling interruptions from a computer screensaver, and its running voice-over commentary provided by an unseen alien observer.

Although the Pokémon phenomenon as a whole seems to attract a wide assortment of children, the film is obviously out to consolidate its transgender appeal. The obsession with displays of prowess and mastery is coupled with an insistence on heart-filled, demonstrative sentiment. This is also part of the Pokémon magic.

But there is an earthly, even earthy aspect to Pokémania as well. The film starts and ends with that most ordinary of fixations: hunger, and the desire to chow down a good meal. Consumption rules!

© Adrian Martin December 1999

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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