Like its two key card game opponents, “Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light” is hermetically sealed: No one without a working knowledge of the fabulously profitable Manga-turned-gamer phenomenon will find it easy to enter here. No cuddly, funky “Pokemon” pocket monsters populate this pic; this game is for the big kids, rife with a ruthless tone, heightened violence and cold calculation. However, fans will put up with a dull tale to finally see their obsession on the bigscreen, and franchise’s built-in fan base will lock in a solid opening week. Beyond plenty of repeaters, wider breakout seems dim.
Kazuki Takahashi’s original 1996 Manga cannily strode in “Pokemon’s” shadow, borrowing its basic character set-up (modest teen kid with a competitive spirit, his cadre of eclectic pals, a tiny critter along for the action and an ever-present rival), merchandise-savvy concept (the hero plays a game, which the fans, in turn, can play themselves) and cliffhanger plotlines (typically involving sage elders and demonic forces bent on destroying the world).
Instead of “Pokemon’s” ball, Takahashi’s hero Yugi-aka Yu-Gi-Oh — aka “King of Cards” — plays cards, placing them on a high-tech device that brings forth the virtual monster repped on the face card.
Popular in print and as a TV series, “Yu-Gi-Oh!” has certainly infected young gamers with a frenzy. But where “Pokemon” retained a certain funky quality linked with candy-colored Japanese pop design and a certain loopy abstraction, “Yu-Gi-Oh!” is all about strategy, strategy, strategy — and winning at all costs with often fiercely mechanistic monsters only boys could love.
Picking up at the end of the tube series’ third season, when Yugi wins the Battle City Tournament, pic shows Yugi fiddling with the magic “Millennium Puzzle” pendant he wears around his neck (and which allows him to cosmically join forces with an ancient Pharaoh who serves as his all-powerful partner during game time).
As he figures out the last piece of the puzzle, it awakens an Egyptian mummy dubbed Anubis, which was long ago defeated in an ancient form of the card game by the Pharaoh.
A clear sign that the filmmakers assume that auds are already fully Yu-Gi-ized comes with the entry of Yugi’s permanent and bitter rival, Seto Kaiba, whose background is barely mentioned. An even clearer sign is the appearance of the game’s reclusive inventor, Maximillion Pegasus, who counsels Kaiba. It seems that the so-called “God Cards” in Yugi’s possession are his key to victory; if Pegasus can give Kaiba the tips to trump Yugi’s hand, then Yugi’s days as champ are numbered.
As a bit of a test, Pegasus plays a round against Kaiba, using “toon monster” cards that are a bit “Pokemon”-like but might have been truly charming if they had recalled Warners’ own animated characters. (This unrealized linkage is further suggested when a victorious Kaiba declares, “That’s All, Folks!”)
Danger lurks when the mummy escapes from its case, snatching the potent “Pyramid of Light” object. Challenging Yugi to a game, Kaiba reveals that he has a — who knew? — Pyramid of Light card (“It’s more than just an ancient artifact! It’s a card!”) that suddenly seals the pair in a light-blue pyramid.
Action is split up into brief sequences that closely conform with the TV show’s story structure. But while each 30-minute episode is loaded with activity, the length of a feature clearly defeats helmer Hatsuki Tsuji and his combined Japanese and Korean team, as well as a crew of Yank screenwriters.
The Yugi-Kaiba duel seems to go on forever. Every card player must loudly and in great detail announce his next move, plus the strategic thinking behind it — all of which makes for a mass of leaden, dull dialogue, among the least amusing heard in any recent film.
A last-minute insertion of sentiments celebrating friendship is unconvincing. The animation itself is extremely rudimentary, with robotically stiff character movement and no kinetic substitute on screen for the ultra-geometrical, dynamic Manga style in print. Voice work is delivered by many “Pokemon” vets, only more loudly declamatory this time, and with barely a laugh in earshot.