There was a time when Pokemon was considered to be a world-wide juggernaut. The merchandise was on shop shelves, the trading cards were a hot commodity, the animated series was playing on TV, and the games were bestsellers.
The strange thing about the franchise is that that’s all still true. You can walk into most toy shops and find Pokemon toys and plushies; the cards are big business and are bought and sold for high prices; the TV show hasn’t been off air in twenty five years; and the franchise is one of the highest selling video game series of all time. Despite that, the feeling of Pokemania that swept through the UK when the series first landed has almost completely died down. Pokemon is still there, but it’s flying under the radar.
One of the ways in which the series slowly began to fall out of general public consciousness was with the films. The original Pokemon film, Pokemon: The First Movie, was a huge hit that included tie-in promotions with fast food restaurants, TV trailers, and media coverage. In comparison, the later films would receive more limited releases, and would have almost no advertisement at all.
2003’s Pokemon Heroes, the fifth film to be released, is one of these movies; one that slipped beneath the radar of the cultural zeitgeist to the point where a lot of people are still surprised that Pokemon movies are being made. Pokemon Heroes was the last Pokemon animated film to receive a cinema release outside of Japan until the 20th anniversary Pokemon: I Choose You! So with that in mind, is the final cinematic outing any good?
The story of Pokemon Heroes follows series regulars Ash (Veronica Taylor), Misty (Rachael Lillis), Brock (Eric Stuart), and Pikachu (Ikue Ōtani) as they visit the watery city of Alto Mare. Heavily inspired by Venice, the city is a warren of canals, bridges, and ancient architecture that Ash and his friends are enjoying exploring. Legend has it that Alto Mare was turned into the watery place it is when an evil trainer attacked the city centuries ago with his vicious fossil Pokemon. A Latios, a legendary dragon Pokemon, defeated the threat, and the city was forever transformed.
Since then, the city has built the Defence Mechanism of Alto Mare (D.M.A. for short), a device capable of protecting Alto Mare and its citizens using the Soul Dew, the remains of the Latios that died saving them. Of course, the villainous Team Rocket want the device; though not the ones you’d expect. New antagonists Annie (Megan Hollingshead) and Oakley (Lisa Ortiz) hatch a scheme to get their hands on the device. Luckily, Ash and his friends are ready to stop them, with the help of the children of the original Latios.
One of the things that immediately stands out about Pokemon Heroes is that it feels like it’s very much doing its own thing. The events of the movie are set in a completely new area not found in any of the games, and not mentioned in the television series. This is something that the show has done in the past, but thanks to Alto Mare taking such heavy inspiration from Venice it does feel quite jarring to watch, as this is one of the closest it’s ever felt to seeing Pokemon wandering around a place you recognise (until Detective Pikachu at least). Thanks to this choice, the animation feels slightly off throughout.
One of the things with the Pokemon movies, as with any animated series being made into a feature film, is that the animation has been given an upgrade and looks different from the show. In this case the result is a movie where things look much darker than normal. The film looks dull, and much of the colour and vibrancy that the series incorporates is replaced by darker tones and a drab set of colours. Part of this is down to the aforementioned desire to evoke images of Venice, as the film sticks pretty close to the look and feel of the real world location. Whilst it feels weird to see the show like this, it’s only heightened when you have Pikachu running around what is essentially the streets of Venice, chasing after a red and white dragon creature.
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Another thing that the film does to its detriment is to side-line most of the main cast. Ash gets the focus here, and that’s not much of a surprise, but more often than not Misty and Brock are simply removed from the movie completely. Ash and Pikachu run off and leave them, or they get separated from Ash thanks to locked doors, leaving them absent for the majority of the film. Team Rocket, however, suffer the most. Whilst the new characters Annie and Oakley are part of the gang, they’re not the ones people think of when they hear the name. Iconic characters Jessie (Rachael Lillis), James (Eric Stuart), and Meowth (Maddie Blaustein) are in the film, but feature in less than a minute of the film’s total run time. Their presence feels almost pointless, and almost like they were included as some kind of box ticking exercise or contractual obligation.
The film didn’t do well upon release. It released in Japan a year earlier, the same week as Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, which resulted in it failing to make much of a dent at the box office. Similarly, it’s US theatrical release ended up being the lowest grossing release for the franchise, and was possibly a big reason why it was the final one for many years. Part of the failure may have come from the poor press the film received. Pokemon Heroes receiving a majority of negative reviews from outlets that was sure to have hurt its sales, though no response was as bad as the New York Post review, which gave it 0 stars and called it “a form of child abuse”.
Pokemon Heroes was released in the US on 16th May 2003.