Pokemon: The First Movie

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Special Edition DVD

Warner, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], subtitles: English, French, single side-single layer, no chapters, rated G, 96 min., $26.98, street date 3/21/2000.


  • Feature-Length Audio Commentary by English Adaption Director Michael Haigney and Producer Norman J. Grossfeld
  • Minimovie Pikachu's Vacation As Seen In Theaters
  • The Story of Mewtwo's Origin
  • Ash's Journey
  • Music Video from the Atlantic Record Soundtrack: M2M's Don't Say You Love Me
  • Sneak Preview of the Second Pokemon Movie
  • Production Notes
  • Theatrical Trailer

Studio Line

Directed by Michael Haigney and Kunohiko Yuyama. Voices by Veronica Taylor, Rachael Lillis, Eric Stuart, Ikue Ootani, Philip Bartlett, Addie Blaustein, Ted Lewis.

The adventure explodes into action with the debut of Mewtwo, a bio-engineered Pokemon created from the DNA of Mew, the rarest of all Pokemon. Determined to prove its superiority, Mewtwo lures Ash, Pikachu and the others into a Pokemon match like none before. Mewto vs. Mew. Super-clones vs. Pokemon. It's the ultimate showdown…with the very future of the world at stake!

Picture/Sound/Extras (B/B+/B-)

Back when Pokemon: The First Movie hit screens last November, I heard a local radio talk show discuss the reviews of it. Parents called in and complained about the negative tenor of these articles because the critics actually had the gall to state that it was a poorly-made film. According to these upset parents, the reviewers missed the point; since Pokemon wasn't aimed at adults, these critics had no right to attack it for apparently being such a piece of junk.

Hogwash! That's insane to think that critics shouldn't review a film because they don't fall in the target audience. Of course Pokemon wasn't made for crotchety critics, but that's irrelevant; those folks are still in the best position to judge if it's a well-made film, which Pokemon apparently was not. Those opinions remain valid.

That's not to deny the appeal the film holds for the wee ones for whom it was made. Whether we adults like it or not, they're eating this stuff up with a shovel. From my point of view, Pokemon seems to be the biggest kids TV sensation since that other crude Japanese import, Power Rangers, hit these shores a few years back.

While I certainly won't endorse Pokemon in its TV or movie forms, I also won't condemn it either. Is it a disappointment that higher-quality films like The Iron Giant die a quick box office death while technically-primitive, merchandise-oriented offerings like P:TFM rake in the big bucks? Sure - it'd be great if kids managed to appreciate good films more than they went for artificially-packaged goods like this, and the huge success of so many Disney movies shows it's possible.

But there's always going to be that mix of junk food and nutritious fare in the kid's diet, which is why they so happily pursued Power Rangers and The Lion King. Kids don't know art - they just know what they like, and they clearly adore Pokemon, and more power to them.

It's not like those of us in older generations have clean records. I remember well all the hours I spent watching imported trash like Kimba and Speed Racer, and every generation has similar stories to tell. Is there any qualitative difference between these shows and Pokemon? No, not really. The push for merchandising clearly drives the beast much more than it did 30 years ago, but don't believe for one second that factor makes Pokemon more tainted than the cheap junk we watched; if the merchants at the time had been more savvy, they'd have jumped on the Speed Racer bandwagon like nobody's business.

Qualitatively, Pokemon: TFM clearly offers an inferior product. The animation is so poor that it barely qualifies as such; characters completely lack life and move as little as possible. Dialogue is spoken with broad "open mouth, shut mouth" actions that make it so much easier to dub the participants into foreign languages. The storyline sticks to a very broad "evil genius who tries to take over the world" plotline that may never have been fresh. The film's conclusion turns on such hoary clichés that I believe Rodney King must have written it. There's virtually no creativity or spark on display here.

That's what my 32-year-old, amateur critic's eyes tell me. The part of me that remembers what it's like to be a kid tells Junior Ebert to stuff it - Pokemon's fun in its own way. Though clicheed, the story moves at a reasonable pace, and main human character Ash makes a good "everykid" character with whom the target audience can identify. The violence is reasonably tame - although the Pokemon fight, they never die - and remains so firmly in the realm of fantasy that it seems harmless.

The Pokemon themselves are all pretty cute. Most adorable are the omnipresent Pikachu (he's that little lightning-bolt critter you've seen so many times) and bizarro-turtle Squirtle. Even the more tough-looking monsters retain an element of cuteness, most likely to keep them nonthreatening.

I can't even criticize the "we're all brothers"/anti-racist finale. It's tremendously lame, really, and seems so blatant as to be insulting, but I always feel that even if a message such as that positively influences only one kid, then it's worth it. In a more adult film, the imagery would be so transparently hokey it'd be laughable (the "We all look the same!" conclusion to Volcano springs to mind). However, the little ones need all the reinforcement they can get, and while I don't pretend that Pokemon will stop racism, it can't hurt.

I didn't like Pokemon: The First Movie, but I also didn't hate it. Is it a poorly-made piece of work? Yup. Does the film's plot seem insanely generic? Yup. But so what? It does what it sets out to do, and it could have been much worse. Maybe I'm just a sucker for mutant turtles, but this film made me view the whole franchise in a more positive light.

Pokemon: The First Movie appears in a fullscreen transfer on this single-sided, single-layered DVD. According to the package, this is not a pan and scan job but rather a version that offers the entire frame without cropping or matting, "presented in the full aspect ratio of the original camera negative, as Pikachu intended."

Well, Pikachu can say whatever he/she/it wants, but I don't buy it. Far too much of the movie seemed cramped on the sides; it wasn't that we lost information but just that the framing appeared too tight. I also felt that too much detail would have been cut off the tops and bottoms if the image was matted, which made me think that this is actually a pan and scan version. I readily recognize that I might be wrong about this, but judging by the picture itself, I don't think this is actually a fullframe transfer.

Not that the minor lack of information really has any impact on the story, of course, but it still seems odd. Anyway, the general quality of the movie seems decent but unexceptional. Sharpness usually looks good but quite a few scenes appear oddly soft; characters occasionally are surprisingly soft and fuzzy when seen in shots with a few or more participants. This problem seems more related to the original drawings than the transfer, but the end result remains the same. Some jagged edges can also be witnessed, but no moiré effects appear.

Print quality seems acceptable, with no scratches or grain, but some speckles show up, and it also appeared gritty and slightly dirty at times. These problems are fairly minor but still significant for a four-month-old film. Colors are pretty good; though occasionally a bit blotchy and runny, hues stay nice and bright for the most part. Black levels look quite good, and shadow detail is fine. Overall, Pokemon looks good, but it offers more problems than I'd like in such a recent film.

Better is the movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. It's a relatively aggressive track, especially due to the fact that one of the main characters - MewTwo - delivers most of his psychic-dialogue through the rear speakers; Pokemon probably provides more rear channel speech than any other movie I've seen. Other than that, the track delivers some nice spatialization and panning in the front, and the rears - while not as aggressive as you might think - back up the action pretty nicely.

Quality seems fine. The dubbed dialogue appears clean, clear and pretty natural, and the music comes across as vivid and lively. Effects are a little disappointing, as they don't pack too much of a punch; they don't totally lack power, but I thought they could have blasted a bit more actively. It's still a good track, though, and it makes the movie more exciting.

As a DVD, Pokemon is a serious enigma. On one hand, it's a fullframe transfer, which seems to be a concession from Warner Bros. that only kids will watch this disc - God forbid children watch letterboxed movies! On the other hand, though, we have the supplements on this DVD, many of which would seem to have zero interest for the young 'uns. Freaky!

Anyway, the inclusion of the supplements was actually a canny move, because it's about the only way that any adult would ever have any interest in the DVD. I must admit that I probably wouldn't have bothered at all with this title had it not featured these extras. I doubt the supplements will put the DVD in the "must have" category for many adults, but they help.

Actually, one apparent extra really isn't one at all. Prior to the start of P:TFM proper, we see a roughly 20 minute short called Pikachu's Vacation. Since this piece appeared in theatres prior to the film, it - like the "Geri's Game" cartoon before A Bug's Life doesn't truly qualify as a supplement on the DVD. Still, I decided to discuss it here because it's not part of the movie proper either.

Although it shows up before the feature, I'd recommend that anyone unfamiliar with Pokemon should watch the film before they check out PV. I wasn't versed in Pokemon lore and the short made absolutely no sense to me. Actually, it wouldn't have made much more sense if I'd seen it after the movie, but at least I would have understood the characters better.

PV seems destined to replace Fantasia as the choice cartoon by which narcotic-aficionados can trip. They may not need the drugs, actually; this is one freakadelic piece of work! I discerned no plot or logic behind the events; it's just a random conglomeration of nonsensical Poke-interactions that are occasionally interrupted by bizarre cutscenes of other Pokemon as they chant their catchphrases. I found PV to be more entertaining than the movie itself because it was just so incredibly odd - it's an amazingly weird piece of work.

Among the actual supplements, first up is a pretty good audio commentary from "English adaptation" director/cowriter Michael Haigney and "English adaptation" producer/cowriter Norman J. Grossfeld. This track is clearly oriented toward adults unfamiliar with Pokemon, as the two spend a fair amount of time discussing characteristics of the show and the participants. As such, it was helpful to me, since I lacked much understanding of those issues. The two maintain a very genial approach and they seem to enjoy each others' company; as such, it's a very pleasant and entertaining piece.

Haigney and Grossfeld also touch on some technical details that otherwise would go unknown. For example, they talk about the differences between the Japanese version and the American adaptation, plus they mention the challenges inherent in making the English dialogue match. Even though Pokemon uses those incredibly broad mouth movements, apparently there are still some problems getting the words to match. Who knew? The two also offer some wry comments about the film and the series; they don't mock it, but they're not above having a little fun with their work. I liked this track and found it more compelling than the movie itself.

More extras pad out the DVD. We get "The Story of Mewtwo's Origin", which is actually a deleted scene from the movie, and was wisely left out, since the final product adequately describes how MewTwo came to be. Still, if you liked the movie, you'll be happy to see this two minute and 20 second outtake.

An odder piece is called "Ash's Journey". This nearly-two minute clip is essentially just a very basic introduction to the world of Pokemon and to our main characters. I'm not sure toward whom this segment was intended, since all the kids will already know this info, and the adults will have picked up on the minor tidbits included if they've already watched the movie. Still, I guess its appearance is not a bad thing, and it could be helpful to some.

Two trailers show up on the DVD. We get the original theatrical trailer for Pokemon: TFM itself, plus a preview of this July's awkwardly-titled sequel, Pokemon: The Movie 2000. Eight months from original to sequel? That has to be a record!

Next we get a music video for "Don't Say You Love Me" from cute jailbait popsters M2M. What in the world a song that protests the pressures young men put on young women to have sex has to do with Pokemon is anyone's guess, but the girls are cute and the semi-incoherent video seems mildly entertaining; at least it displays strong production values and inserts the requisite movie clips more subtly than most videos (the piece takes place at a drive-in, and Pokemon's showing on the screen in the background).

Finally we inspect the "Behind the Scenes" area which simply offers a few screens of text. This material nicely summarizes the origins of Pokemon and helps inform clueless adults (like myself) as to what's happening. If you're new to Pokemon, you may actually want to check out this area and "Ash's Journey" before you watch the movie; I don't usually recommend that anyone view supplements prior to a film, but in this case, it might help.

Oh, one other extra: apparently each DVD includes two collector's cards. I rented mine, so I didn't get to see these, but I'd think they make a nice addition for the kids.

Can I really recommend Pokemon: The First Movie? No - it's too poor a film for me to encourage anyone to see it. The DVD's quality is good, and there are some nice extras, but almost anyone outside of the movie's very young target audience will have little use for it.

However, if you're a parent, you can get this DVD and be assured that it's a decent offering for your kids. They'll love it, and the inclusion of the supplements should make it more appealing to you. You may think that nothing can make you stand Pokemon, but you might want to check out some of the extras when your kids are asleep; I think they'll help you better understand the series and you'll then be able to interact with your kids about it. That may not sound like much fun, but watch your kids' eyes light up when you engage them in a conversation about Pokemon and you're able to pull your own weight and not look condescending - they'll eat it up. Give it a try - after all, since you can't fight them, might as well join them!

Related Sites

Current as of 3/23/2000

Official Site--Pokemon fans will find much to like about this site as there are plenty of things and goodies to check out.
Roger Ebert--"I can't recommend the film or work up much enthusiasm for it because there is no level at which it enriches a young viewer, by encouraging thinking or observation."
Amazon.com--Available to purchase are the DVD at special discount and the tie-in paperback (recommended ages 9-12) by Tracey West.
Reel.com--Purchase the DVD at special discount.

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