It’s Pokemon’s world, and we’re just living in it — at least, until the next kiddie craze hits and these multitalented, evolutionary pocket monsters fade away to join Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers in the Hall of Fame of Retired Cartoon Superheroes. That’ll be long after untold millions of dollars are generated by tickets and merchandise items are sold as part of the synergy Time Warner has manufactured around this once-humble anime saga about a boy named Ash Ketchum and his self-made mission to become the world’s greatest Pokemon master. “Pokemon: The First Movie” (with an additional subtitle “Mewtwo Strikes Back”), is the phenomenon’s foray into features, a bloated and epic-sized departure from the rollicking adventures and subversive humor of the massively popular TV show. Were young Pokemaniacs not so obsessed, this might pose a B.O. problem, but absolutely nothing can stop the picture from going through the roof, with ancillary numbers that will go into the record book.
Nonetheless, fans — the vast majority of whom pop culture demographers estimate to be between the ages of 6 and 12 — will sense that something is disturbingly different, and off, starting with pic’s “Frankenstein”-themed prologue, when scientists discover that their efforts to bioengineer the rarest Pokemon of all, Mew, have created a monster — Mewtwo (the 151st creature in Pokemon world). It escapes, only to fall into the clutches of a con man, until it escapes again. For the first time in Pokemon history, Mewtwo is a pocket monster with deep inner thoughts, bitter that he is only a warped clone and specimen, and finding that his life’s purpose is to purge all those who oppose him.
Boys will find this grim opening rather thrilling, a change of pace from the usually less intense Poke-ventures, but girls — a big part of the Pokemon crowd and what makes it such a humongous commercial success — will feel left out in the cold. Things get back on more familiar ground over title credits as picnicking Ash and his pals Misty and Brock (with Ash’s ever-faithful Pikachu, the first Pokemon Ash collected on his odyssey) are interrupted by a rival, who, like Ash, is a Pokemon trainer with several pocket monsters of his own. A battle ensues, as Ash and his opponent throw out the red balls that burst with the individual fighting Pokemon contained inside.
Mysterious “mistress of the greatest No. 1 trainer” invites eager trainers to remote New Island, but a raging storm (featuring the closest this anime gets to anything like high-quality work) prevents all but the most able from arriving. These include, of course, Ash’s perennial rivals known as Team Rocket, who penetrate an island cave and end up in a massive cloning lab.
Ash and friends, as well as poorly developed fellow trainers, find themselves duped as the No. 1 trainer reveals himself to be Mewtwo. His superpowers appear unassailable, even as his “mistress” breaks her spell and emerges as Joy, the nice nurse at the Pokemon Center, the pocket monsters’ hospital. Little does Mewtwo know, though, that the rare Mew has emerged from the sea and flies into the New Island lair. Silly, lumbering sequence as Mewtwo uses defeated creatures and clones them into bigger critters delays inevitable showdown between Mew and Mewtwo, with Ash making a valiant, nearly fatal effort to bring peace.
This pacifist spirit of brotherhood echoes the heroics in “Princess Mononoke” and other anime titles, but the artistic gap between the Miyazaki masterpiece and this project is huge. Still, both Japanese-spawned works, now coincidentally on U.S. screens, appeal to exactly separate auds, with “Mononoke” just right for the kid who’s too grownup for “Pokemon” silliness.
The younger set loves the flat anime design, continued here from the series and game (wisely, Warner reportedly quashed the idea to add dimensional touches), and the only new visual elements include a certain sepulchral darkness in key scenes and digitized backgrounds, which don’t match the foreground art. Poor decision by makers of original Japanese version as well as American version (most of whom handle the WB-aired series) to dump the light fun of the series carries over to pic’s color scheme, which is downright depressing compared with “Pokemon’s” funky small-screen sunniness.
Music includes new pop tunes from stars including Christina Aguilera and Baby Spice, but lacks the emblematic “Pokemon” theme song.
More in line with the original Poke-spirit is a 20-minute short, “Pikachu’s Vacation,” accompanying the feature. Fairly non-linear piece observing Pikachu and other pocket monsters at their outdoor resort is wildly disorienting to non-fans, but at times is hallucinatory in its quick cuts, abstracted action and color saturation. Fans weary of Ash and Co. trudging off to another adventure will groove on this brief curiosity.