The new competition for Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum includes ice crystals and a flying double-helix composed of figures resembling an alien alphabet — and “Pokemon 3 the Movie: Spell of the Unown” is just as cool and remote. The series’ quest for different and challenging Pokemon reaches a nearly absurd endpoint this time with a creature inexplicably called the Unown, which is purely abstract and has none of the animal nature of previous pocket monsters. Plot is equally chilly, though punctuated by Pokemon faceoffs that little fans demand. A fresh supply of younger Pokemaniacs will line up, but it’s doubtful that the franchise can be sustained much longer as its original fans have left for fresher anime thrills.
As in the previous longform spinoffs of the TV series, the makers stress big action sequences over the whimsy and humor of the small-screen cousin, but the action here tends to be clunky and repetitive. More problematic is the feeble human story that tries to say something about the will of one child’s imagination, but comes off as a misguided hostage drama.
The quickly introduced Professor Hale, a vet Pokemon researcher, reads tales about “mythical” Pokemon while play-acting them out for his young daughter Molly. Soon back at work at a remote desert tomb, Hale accidentally frees the Unown while trapping himself inside its alphabetical black hole.
The string of stylized letters — surely one of the oddest and least affecting bad guys in the history of animated children’s pics — makes its way to Hale’s mansion home, encasing it and the surrounding town of Greenfield in ice crystals. Molly, whose mother previously vanished, conjures up with her tiny mind the giant, hairy fictional Pokemon Entei, and begins calling it Papa.
Converging on crystallized Greenfield, Ash, his Pokemon trainer gang and vagabond trainer Lisa are brought up to speed by Professor Oak, who’s conveniently accompanied by Ash’s mom, Delia — just the woman to be abducted by the Unown as a substitute parent for the dazed and dazzled Molly.
This sets Ash into action, all of it covered by the local TV news. The battle is beyond Ash’s ability, though, because he soon realizes that Molly can imagine herself as a Pokemon trainer superstar who can easily defeat Ash or Lisa. The contests within the larger contest are at least a respite from the wearisome sections showing Molly in a clueless daze, creating a stasis that begins to grip the movie as a whole.
A sign that the Japanese filmmaking team ran into a dead end is the sudden, arbitrary entry of Charizard, a long-absent Pokemon beast that decides to ally with Ash against Entei. It’s not exactly Rodan vs. Mothra, but for a few minutes, the airborne war between these Pokemon lifts pic out of deep freeze.
In an extremely strange and ill-thought-out turn of storytelling, the emotions of a happy ending where Molly is reunited with her father and mother are completely drained by showing it in a series of distant long shots over the crowded closing credits.
The animation doesn’t display the kind of artistic advances that would compensate for the underdeveloped story. Though the ice-crystal fields are drawn with more than a nod to the nature scapes of Hokusai and include the bizarre touch of a giant cactus flower as a centerpiece, they’re poorly rendered and lack any atmospheric dread.
New pocket monster Entei is a fine addition to the collection, but the Unown is just a bad idea that gets worse with time.
As usual for the series’ English-lingo versions, the sync between mouth movements and voice is uneven. Opening 17-minute short, “Pikachu the Movie 2001: Pikachu and Pichu,” is more fun than the feature, though the drawing and action set in the big city lacks the trippy, candy-colored stylization of previous Pikachu shorts.