Pokémon: The First Movie had its original release in Japan on 18th July 1998. It opened in the UK on 14th April 2000.
When I saw that Pokémon: The First Movie was turning 20 I jumped at the chance to write a piece about it – then was immediately disturbed by the prospect that it was turning 20. There’s something about beloved franchises from your youth hitting big milestones that really hammer home how old you’re getting. The Pokémon franchise itself celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2017 and I had complicated feelings about it then too.
I can still remember Christmas morning in 1999, when I was still just 12 years old, and opening up a present that contained a brand new lime green Gameboy Colour and a copy of Pokémon Blue. The TV show had been airing in the UK for a few months and the trading card game was taking playgrounds by storm, so the anticipation for the game was huge. I’d even bought a walk-through guide months before and would page through it again and again learning everything I could about the game.
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Fast forward a few months and the big event of 2000 happened: the first Pokémon movie hit UK cinemas. I vividly remember going to watch it more than once, getting different people to take me so that I could try and get as many of the free trading cards that came with the tickets as I could. Boy were those good days.
The film itself loosely fits into the animated series, something that the subsequent 18 or so films would do, and followed Ash (Veronica Taylor), Misty (Rachael Lillis), and Brock (Eric Stuart) as they receive a mysterious summons to attend a event on a mysterious island, where they can challenge the worlds greatest Pokémon trainer.
Arriving on the island along with several other strong trainers, and Team Rocket, they discover that this mysterious trainer is in fact Mewtwo, a powerful Pokémon created in a lab from the genetic material of the mythical Pokémon Mew. Mewtwo refuses to be a slave fighting for humans, however, and sets out to create a new world of powerful Pokémon cloned from the trainers’ originals. With the trainers’ Pokémon desperately battling their own, more powerful clones, Mew arrives on the island and the ultimate Pokémon battle begins.
The plot of the film is actually quite different from the original Japanese version, with Mewtwo’s motivations being changed quite drastically in the English dub. In the original he was trying to earn his place in the world, as he felt he did not have one due to his clone origins. In the western version Mewtwo is altered into a much more antagonistic figure, one that has almost villainous aims.
Whilst this change upset some, fans at the time found it to be very entertaining, and thanks to the first part of the film being dedicated to showing Mewtwo’s origins it felt like a believable motivation. You get to see him born in a lab, made by scientists who don’t care about his thoughts or feelings, even after learning that he’s a sentient being capable of complex thought and feelings. After this, he’s used by the leader of Team Rocket and made into a weapon used against their enemies, or to further their criminal goals. This part of the film even expanded upon some small scenes that featured in episodes of the animated series, where Mewtwo had be teased to build up excitement for the film.
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Despite being a film about strange monsters and the people who use them to fight in competition with each other Pokémon: The First Movie is more a film that tells a story about destiny. Are you fated to a single path in life purely because of how you came into the world? A quote from the film that is often shared online, usually with people bwing shocked about where it came from thanks to the depth it shows, sums this up well: “The circumstances of one’s birth is irrelevant, it is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are”.
The film even takes the bold move of sending the message that fighting is wrong (which seems to go against the entire core of the Pokémon franchise), and tries to foster a message of togetherness and peace:
“We do have a lot in common. The same Earth, the same air, the same sky. Maybe if we started looking at what’s the same instead of what’s different… well, who knows.” – Meowth
These deeper messages are something that stuck with the kids who watched the movie when it first came out, and the film’s attempt to be something more than just a bigger and longer episode of the show is why it’s the most successful Pokémon film. It briefly held the record for highest-grossing opening for an animated film in the US, and is still the most financially successful animé of all time outside of Japan.
Pokémon: The First Movie might not be a film that will set your world on fire, and if you’re not a fan of the franchise, or it’s not something from your childhood you might even get bored watching it. But if you grew up with Pokémon, if it was a part of your youth and meant something to you then it’ll mean something to you now too.