It's raining pet monsters, and "Digimon: The Movie" unashamedly follows the craze set by "Pokemon" while managing not to appear a dumb clone. The episodic adventure about Tokyo kids utilizing their friendly digital monsters against evil counterparts gobbling up the Web began as short animes, and this extended entry tends to dissipate the short form's energy and humor.
It’s raining pet monsters, and “Digimon: The Movie” unashamedly follows the craze set by “Pokemon” while managing not to appear a dumb clone. The episodic adventure about Tokyo kids utilizing their friendly digital monsters against evil counterparts gobbling up the Web began as short animes, and this extended entry tends to dissipate the short form’s energy and humor. Just as the pocket monsters seem to be fading, with 10-week-old “Pokemon 2000″ nabbing only half the domestic coin of the first feature, their digital competition — firmly established by the popular, and funnier, Fox TV series — may be positioned to pick up the slack, with good theatrical and ancillary prospects.As if to further drive a wedge between plugged-in kids and their off-line parents, “Digimon’s” concept assumes Web savvy and is designed to capture little hearts and minds that can’t imagine anything worse than beasts ready to destroy their beloved Internet. Anti-Web Luddites, on the other hand, might find the ideal poster-mon in pic’s new baddie, the ruthless Diaboromon, who makes the “I love you” virus look like a slight blip on the screen. Still, while the visual concept of waging battle inside the Web itself is an intriguing idea, animation work is generally far below the standard tolerable for the bigscreen. Even at slightly over 80 minutes, the feature length appears to be a burden to its makers (the Toei Animation camp in Japan, followed by an American re-dubbing), only slightly resolved by three acts that strain to tell distinct but related stories. Opening sets up the “Digimon” mythology, explaining how young Kari and Tai first made contact with a tiny beast that emerged from the Web in egg form, hatched and evolved from cuddly creature into a raging T-Rex terrorizing their Tokyo apartment block. Kids Kari, Tai, Matt, T.K., Sora, Mimi and Izzy witnessed this battle (which older auds can view as a wry spoof of Nippon monster pics) and become the “Digi-destined” few who can contact the good Digimon in order to fight the nasty ones. The saga shifts forward four years to a half-hour battle between Tai and Izzy pounding away on their keyboard against the growing virtual menace of Diaboromon. This section comes closest to the spirit of the small-screen version, with running gags like Tai’s mom constantly asking the busy boys to try her latest tofu-and-wheat-germ blender creations. Plot takes outrageous turn as a thermonuclear threat is triggered by Diaboromon’s devouring of the Web and the electronic infrastructure that makes the high-tech world hum, but the vision of Tai going inside the Digi-World to do battle is less fantastic than it sounds. The final section is a crudely applied appendix, straining to both extend pic to a marketable length and cater blatantly to a Yank audience. Vacationing Digi-kids in Gotham just happen to encounter lonely Willis, unable to control his own humongous Digimon, Kokomon, who repeatedly utters the Zen-like phrase, “Go back to the beginning.” Reading this as a clue to go back to his Colorado home, Willis is cajoled by the rest of the gang from Japan to reveal his link to the near-disaster with Diaboromon, while giving in to the group demand to be part of a team instead of a lone free agent. Students of Japanese corporate team models will get a kick out of this, while kids might be amused watching Kokomon stomp all over the Rockies. It’s a shame that a saga full of amusing pop culture messages (for those able and willing to find them) is ultimately so marred by the kind of animation that can only be the product of an assembly line operation. While there are flashes of imagination in the repeated spurts of action as the Digimons leap into the fray, the stiff movement and bland color schemes remain a constant, and finally prove extremely hard to watch for the sustained length of a feature. As in all of the Nippon anime imports retooled for the English-lingo market, voice work is weirdly awful and funny at the same time, though deadpan exchanges between the Digi-kids aren’t nearly as amusing here as they are on the Saturday morning show.