Category Archives: Animated Films

RIP Isao Takahata

Isao Takahata, one of the world’s premiere animation filmmakers, has passed away at the age of 82.

Together with his protegé Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata served as co-founder of Studio Ghibli, which quickly became one of the world’s leading forces in animated cinema, inspiring other filmmakers across the world. Takahata personally directed five features for the studio, starting with Grave of the Fireflies, widely regarded as a masterpiece in the medium, and well known for being one of the most emotional impactful films ever made. From there, Takahata would direct Only Yesterday, a romantic drama that continued Ghibli’s trend of proving animated films can tell stories for any audience, not just children.

Takahata would later direct the ecological fairy tale Pom Poko, followed by the family comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas in 1999. After Yamadas, Takahata would enter something of an unofficial retirement, which he would come out of for one final feature with 2013’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, which it really, really should have won).

Isao Takahata’s career didn’t start with Ghibli, however, as he had been making animated features and directing TV episodes since the 1960s, including Chie the Brat and Panda! Go Panda!. Once he and Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli, Takahata personal produced Miyazaki’s earlier features.

Takahata’s films are well known for their emotional strengths, as well as for how distinct as each individual film is from the others. Like Miyazaki, Isao Takahata boasted a unique versatility in his handling of different materials, giving each one of his films an identity all their own. His films were (relatively) more “slice-of-life” than Miyazaki’s fantasies, but were no less magical. Isao Takahata’s films had a unique way of speaking to the child (and adult) in all of us.

The worlds of animation and cinema will never be the same without Isao Takahata, and already the world seems less magical. Rest in peace, Isao Takahata.

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Spirited Away and Me

*The following is a gushing love note detailing the history leading up to the first time I ever saw Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, which was fifteen years ago today, on March 31st 2003.*

Spirited Away was originally released in American theaters on September 20th 2002, but I wouldn’t see it until March the 31st of 2003. This is largely due to the nearly non-existent marketing Disney gave the film in its initial release. I remember during some random night in mid 2002 I saw a commercial for what looked like a Japanese animated film with the word Disney attached. It immediately sparked curiosity and interest from me, unfortunately it was also around 2:00 AM or something, so I was also tired and didn’t catch the name of the film in question.

I kept watching the same channel (if memory serves correctly it was Nick @ Nite) every night to try and catch the commercial again, but it never seemed to show up. I even tried to search Disney’s website for any info on it, but that proved to be something of a needle in a hay stack endeavor (especially considering I didn’t have a particular patience for the interwebs then). There seemed to be no info of it anywhere, and it was driving me nuts. “What was that Japanese Disney movie?!” I kept thinking to myself. All I can remember from the commercial was that there was a girl, what I thought was a sand-worm (really a dragon) and a castle (really a bathhouse… again, I was tired).

A few months past and I was at a hobby/game store at a local mall. And there I saw an anime magazine with the movie from that commercial on the cover. “Praise the sun!” I thought to myself (in not quite those words). But when I opened the magazine up, I barely got to see the article on the movie before I had to leave (why I didn’t just buy the dang magazine is still a mystery to me), but the few pictures I saw of it were beautiful. I think I finally saw the name “Spirited Away” here, but for reasons unknown I didn’t look it up with my newfound knowledge. I didn’t even know if the movie had already been released or if it was still on the horizon. I guess I was just happy that a smidgeon of my curiosity had been fulfilled.

Fast-forward another few months (now well into 2003), and Oscar season was rolling around. Back then, I didn’t know much about the Oscars each year until they aired on TV, so I didn’t know any of the nominees for anything. But I did know that the year prior they introduced a Best Animated Feature category, and thats all I cared about.

So when the Oscars were on and they were giving out Best Animated Feature as the first award on the show (which is kind of a backhanded compliment to animated films on the Academy’s part, but that’s a rant for another day), I was ecstatic. The nominees were Ice Age, Treasure Planet, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and Lilo & Stitch…but then they announced Spirited Away!

From the brief clip they showed at the Oscars (where the witch Yubaba magically silences Chihiro by zipping her lip) it finally hit me that the animation in Spirited Away looked an awful lot like My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro has been a favorite of mine since I was really little, and if this Spirited Away were anything like it – even remotely – then dang it it deserved the award! At that moment I immediately decided Spirited Away should win… AND IT DID! (perhaps not my most professional moment, but I was just a teenager then, so sue me).

How amazing it was. I didn’t know a Japanese animated film could even have been nominated, and it actually won! Even then, I still didn’t know anything about the movie. But if it had anything to do with the people who made Totoro, then surely it was gold! I wasn’t even sure if it involved the same people as Totoro, but I knew it didn’t look like most anime, and that it had that unique “Totoro look” (as I probably wold have called it at the time). The similarities couldn’t just be a coincidence, right?

Well, the awesome news was that, due to the Oscar win, Spirited Away was getting a quick re-release in theaters across America (despite the fact that it was due for a release on VHS and DVD about two weeks later…Yes, VHSs were still a thing in 2003). Simply put, I had to see it. And although it was actually re-released around March 24th (if I remember correctly), it would be a week before I got the chance to finally see it.

And then, on March 31st 2003, I finally saw that ever-elusive movie. To say it lived up to the hype I had engraved into myself is as big of an understatement as there is. I never had a movie experience like it. Spirited Away was endlessly creative, had an impossibly unique narrative, and couldn’t be more beautiful (both in terms of visuals and storytelling). Hyperbole nothing, I simply adored the movie. It’s among my chief creative influences, and to this day, fifteen years later, it’s still just as captivating.

After seeing the film, I also noticed the films proper title (in America, anyway) was “Miyazakis Spirited Away.” Naturally, after (finally) seeing some commercials for the film, I looked up Spirited Away and this Miyazaki fellow on Disney’s advertised website. And the rest, as they say, is history.

In the decade and a half since that day, which seems so long ago and not long ago all the same, I have become a big fan of Studio Ghibli and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. And this creative spark can be traced back to this day, March 31st, fifteen years ago. Spirited Away will spirit me away forever.

How to Train Your Dragon Review

During the 2000s, Dreamworks Animation was in something of a rivalry with industry giant, Pixar Animation Studios, as the two regularly competed for cinematic supremacy in the CG animation scene. Dreamworks and Pixar traded box office victories, but when it came to critical and audience approval, Pixar consistently came out on the winning end. Perhaps Dreamworks got too comfortable with their more snarky, parody-style that began with Shrek (an instance in which such a movie felt fresh and original), but the studio always came up short against Pixar’s more earnest storytelling. That seemingly changed in 2010, when Dreamworks released How to Train Your Dragon, which told a more direct narrative than Dreamworks’ usual fare and, perhaps because of that, reaped critical praise and started a franchise that boasts many diehard fans.

While How to Train Your Dragon did feel like a breath of fresh air from Dreamworks at the time, the years since have revealed that sense of newness to have been relative. Dragons – though containing a good deal of competence with its material – seems to be telling its story from a rulebook, as it contains a strong sense of “been there, done that” throughout.

How to Train Your Dragon tells the story of Berk, where a tribe of vikings – lead by Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) – frequently have to do battle with dragons, who steal the vikings’ food and livestock at night. The vikings have been at war with dragons for generations, and see them as their mortal enemies.

There is one viking, however, who isn’t cut out for dragon-slaying. This viking is named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), who happens to be the son of Stoick. Hiccup is something of a scrawny pushover, and has long-since been relegated to being the apprentice of the village blacksmith, Gobber (Craig Ferguson). But Hiccup longs to fight dragons, like the rest of the vikings, and invents machines in order to make up for his shortcomings. During a dragon attack one night, Hiccup decides to prove his mettle and tests one of his machines, successfully trapping a Night Fury, a dragon so fast that no viking has seen one up close.

Naturally, the other vikings don’t believe that Hiccup of all people could have been the first to down a Night Fury, so Hiccup sets out to find the trapped dragon, kill it, and prove his worth to the other vikings. But when Hiccup confronts the beast, he can’t bring himself to kill the dragon. Instead, Hiccup frees the Night Fury – whom he names Toothless – and begins to raise the injured dragon as a secret pet.

Hiccup soon learns how to tame dragons, as opposed to hunting them, and realizes that the vikings’ idea of dragons being mindless killing machines couldn’t be further from the truth. All the while, he tries to find a way to convince the other vikings – including his father Stoick and his would-be love interest Astrid (America Ferrera) – to see dragons in a different light.

Truth be told, the story is solid and well told, with some strong emotional bits and a good amount of entertainment throughout. Hiccup is a likable main character (even if Baruchel’s voice sounds a little older than the character should), Toothless is adorable, and the bond between the two makes for a heartwarming “boy and his dog” story…albeit the dog is a dragon.

How to Train Your Dragon tells its story with confidence, and there’s not a whole lot technically wrong with its narrative. The problem is that its narrative can feel like it came off a conveyor belt. Its setup of a misfit hero defying traditions, butting heads with ignorant adults, and befriending a creature once thought villainous, How to Train Your Dragon often brings to mind, well, pretty much every animated movie in history.

Again, that’s not to say that what is here is bad per se, as the storytelling at play is mostly solid, and the film does what it does better than many other animated features that did the same. It’s just that How to Train Your Dragon never once feels like it ventures off the beaten path. Both the story and the characters feel like they could have been pulled from an instruction manual on animated storytelling. It’s certainly an enjoyable and well put-together film, but I can’t help but wish How to Train Your Dragon had a little more creative spark in how it tells its story and the characters it chose to populate it with.

Though it may lack in imagination, How to Train Your Dragon does make for a fun viewing for audiences. Older crowds will appreciate the exquisite CG animation, dramatic musical score and thrilling flying sequences, while the younger lot will probably love the film for the various dragons that show up (each dragon looks and behaves differently, and have their own abilities, bringing a little Pokemon element into the mix).

Make no mistake about it, How to Train Your Dragon is a good movie. But it also seems to have become a bit overhyped. Often hailed as a modern animated classic, repeat viewings can make How to Train Your Dragon feel more like an entertaining but unremarkable animated adventure. It was great to see Dreamworks leave their comfort zone of more sarcastic animated features and make something more genuine (though I’d argue they also did that with Kung Fu Panda beforehand). But if one were to compare How to Train Your Dragon with many of the features Pixar was making at the time (and still is making on occasion), How to Train Your Dragon still feels like it’s in a comfort zone of its own. It’s thoroughly competent at what it does, but what it does is never really anything more than exactly what you’d expect of it.

 

7.5

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro Review

To quote Hayao Miyazaki’s later work, Howl’s Moving Castle: “They say the best blaze burns brightest when circumstances are at their worst.” The quote seems to ring true in many instances, with it being particularly poetic in regards to Miyazaki’s very first feature film, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro.

The 1970s were something of the dark ages of animated cinema. Mainstream animation was floundering after the death of Walt Disney (increases in censorship laws certainly didn’t help things out). Meanwhile, the only alternatives were the desperate and dated ‘adult’ animated films of the time, such as those from Ralph Bakshi. As such, the 1970s animation scene was riddled with features that were either insultingly childish or cringingly adult-pandering (sex and drugs, hyuk!).

It’s fitting then, that in 1979, the last year of that dark decade, an animated feature was released that would change the animation world for the better from that point on. The film in question was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. Based on the popular manga/anime series, Castle of Cagliostro is still seen as the pinnacle of the Lupin III franchise even today. More importantly, it was the feature film debut of Hayao Miyazaki, who would go on to have the single most prolific career in the history of animation. And in turn it also lead to the eventual creation of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and, by extension, Studio Ghibli. Castle of Cagliostro even inspired the western movie scene; seemingly reinvigorating the Disney animators (who often paid the film blatant homage in their own movies) and inspiring many of the key minds who would later form Pixar Animation Studios.

To put it bluntly, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a milestone achievement Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro was. Perhaps the best news is that – although it showcases some obvious limitations as Miyazaki’s first feature – it remains a timeless classic, one of the best in the action-adventure genre.

The story here is that master thief Lupin III and his accomplice Jigen have successfully pulled off their biggest heist at a national casino. Shortly after their getaway, however, Lupin discovers that their newfound riches are counterfeit, being among the legendary “Goat bills,” a counterfeit operation that has been increasing its influence on the world’s economies for centuries.

Lupin and Jigen track the operation to the small country of Cagliostro, where the malicious Count of Cagliostro has taken charge after the nation’s rightful rulers perished in a fire. The Count of Cagliostro is of course behind the counterfeit operation, and is also planning a forced marriage to the nation’s rightful heir, a young woman named Clarisse. Lupin then sets his sights on exposing the Count, sending his calling card to the Count in order to summon inspector Koichi Zenigata – Lupin’s longtime pursuer – to the location, to try and set a plan in motion to expose the Count’s schemes. Additionally, Lupin becomes enamored with Clarisse, and the romantic idea of saving her from the dreadful Count Cagliostro.

It’s a simple action-adventure setup, but its execution makes for one of the best films of its kind, with a consistently fun pace and many memorable set pieces. The film opens with a fantastic car chase (while still taking time to pause for a quiet moment – in true Miyazaki fashion – when Lupin and Jigen need to change a tire), and things only pick up when the gentlemen thieves make their way to the titular castle, where booby traps, ninjas and mysteries abound.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro is also one of those delightful animated films that takes full advantage of the medium to express its vision. In the aforementioned opening car chase, Lupin drives his automobile up a vertical surface to get to higher ground, effectively breaking the laws of physics. Later, Lupin manages to leap from one of the castle’s turrets to another, performing a superhuman feat of agility. Of course, no one in this movie is a super hero or wizard of any kind, so these aren’t directly feats of fantastic powers. Lupin III is simply an animated franchise, and so fantastic occurrences such as these are allowed to happen when need be. And there’s something charming about that.

Of course, being part of a franchise, the series’ key figures all come into play. Along with Lupin, Jigen and Zenigata, Lupin’s samurai-themed cohort Goemon also shows up (albeit sparingly), and the sexy lady-thief Fujiko is on her own undercover mission in the castle. Some fans of the overall franchise lament that some tweaks have been made to the characters’ personalities (most notably Lupin himself, whom Miyazaki depicts as a gentlemen thief, in stark contrast to the character’s often lewd, womanizing behavior, which is only referenced in the film as being a part of Lupin’s past as a “dumb rookie”). But truthfully, the changes work for the story being told here, and I personally prefer “gentlemen Lupin.” The fact that much of the character’s motivation in the film is to live out some romanticized adventure adds to the film’s charms. Besides, when a franchise lasts long enough to branch out into different continuities, such character changes happen all the time. This just happens to be Miyazaki’s personal interpretation of the characters, and it’s an interpretation that works.

There are, unfortunately, a handful of aesthetic elements that show the film’s age. While the main cast of characters are more fluidly animated than anything else at the time, and the environments are – as is the norm in Miyazaki features – truly captivating, the background characters can be a little on the stiff side. And while the music is still catchy and serves its purpose, this is the only Miyazaki-directed film not to be scored by Joe Hisaishi, and when compared to the scores of Miyazaki’s later features, it falls a little short.

Admittedly, those are only quibbles, and they’re only really present for those who may be familiar with Miyazaki’s later work. Seeing as Castle of Cagliostro was the legendary director’s first feature, and before he was one of the leading forces behind his own studio, it’s understandable that the film would have some noticeable limitations. Even with those limitations though, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro has held up better than any other animated feature from its decade, and by quite a large margin.

Yes, Miyazaki would later perfect his craft (the subsequent Castle in the Sky is perhaps an even better adventure film, and features more of the director’s lavish imagination; while My Neighbor Totoro would mark Miyazaki’s shift in focus from simpler entertainment to deeper artistry). But there’s no mistaking that Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro lives up to its hefty reputation and influence. There’s never a dull moment, with the film often being as sweet and funny as it is action-packed and exciting. The film is even cited as being a precursor to the beloved action-adventure movies of the 1980s, including Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro began Miyazaki’s unparalleled streak of animated classics, and helped cement the director’s indelible style (the characters here seem to be a bridge between the traditional Lupin III look and what would later be Miyazaki’s own character designs). Just as impressive as its influence is how much fun Castle of Cagliostro remains even today. It’s still one of the most entertaining action-adventure films out there. Animated or otherwise.

 

9.5

Coco Review

Pixar has been in an interesting place over the past few years. In the 2000s, it seemed like no one in the animation business could approach what Pixar was achieving with feature after feature. The 2010s, on the other hand, have been a bit less consistent, with their parent company Disney seemingly taking the animation crown for themselves. Toy Story 3 got things off to a strong start, but Cars 2 marked the studio’s first real dud. Brave wasn’t bad, but well below what we had come to know the studio for, and The Good Dinosaur is probably second only to the aforementioned Cars 2 at the bottom of the Pixar ladder. During the last few years, Pixar has also relied heavily on sequels: Monsters University was a fun if uneventful prequel to Monsters, Inc. Cars 3, though far from great, was an improvement over its dreadful predecessor. Finding Dory was perhaps Pixar’s only non-Toy Story sequel that matched up to its original, though even it wasn’t the most ambitious Pixar feature. Somewhere in the middle of all this though, Pixar released their most original, imaginative and (in my opinion) greatest feature in Inside Out. So while Pixar may not quite boast the inhuman consistency in quality they once did, they’re still more than capable of delivering the magic they once did so regularly.

Where exactly does Pixar’s most recent feature, Coco, fit into this equation? Well, it’s certainly the famed studio’s most original outing since Inside Out, and probably comes in second place (again, to Inside Out) in being Pixar’s most imaginative feature. Its plot does have some shaky elements that the studio’s best features usually lack, but in terms of emotional resonance and that indelible Pixar magic, Coco is up there with anything Pixar has created before.

Coco revolves around the Rivera family. Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) is the youngest member of the family, and dreams of being a musician like his idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). Miguel’s dreams clash with his family, however, as the Riveras have banned music for generations, after Miguel’s great-great-grandmother’s musician husband abandoned her and her daughter, Coco. Understandably, the family has long-since erased the great-great-grandfather from their lives, and Coco – the only living relative who could remember him – suffers from severe memory loss at her old age (it is implied, though not explicitly stated, that she suffers from Alzheimer’s).

During Dia de los Muertos, Miguel happens to stumble upon some clues as to the identity of his long-forgotten great-great-grandfather; none other than Ernesto de la Cruz himself! Now more determined to become a musician than ever, Miguel confronts his family which, as you may have guessed, doesn’t go too well. After an argument with his grandmother, Miguel runs away from home, and looks to borrow Ernesto’s famed guitar from the singer’s mausoleum to use in a talent show to help his dream come true. But by “stealing” from the dead, Miguel has brought a curse upon himself, becoming invisible to all the humans around him.

Luckily for Miguel, many of his deceased ancestors are visiting the area for Dia de los Muertos. The spectral skeletons are able to see the boy just fine, but recognizing that he’s still alive, take Miguel to the Land of the Dead in order to find a way to send Miguel back home. Miguel can return to the land of the living with the blessing of one of his ancestors, but when they all add the condition that he must give up music when he gets back, Miguel leaves to find Ernesto de la Cruz in order to send him back home while still being able to keep his dream of becoming a musician alive.

Along the way, Miguel meets up with an old friend of Ernesto de la Cruz, Hector (Gael Garcia Bernal), a skeleton who’s in danger of being forgotten in the land of the living, which would result in him vanishing from the land of the dead (the “final death” as the skeletons refer to it). Miguel and Hector team up, with Hector having connections to Ernesto de la Cruz, he can help Miguel get home. In exchange, he gives Miguel his photo to be taken to the land of the living and be put on his family’s ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos, thus ensuring he won’t be forgotten.

In case my lengthy synopsis of the setup weren’t evidence enough, the story of Coco is a bit complicated compared to most Pixar fare, at least in terms of setup. Using Dia de los Muertos as the backdrop for the story makes for both imaginative storytelling and eye-popping visuals, with the locations of the Land of the Dead being up there with the world of Riley’s mind of Inside Out as one of Pixar’s most vibrant and beautiful creations.

The only real downside to Coco is that, in order to make all these world-building elements around Dia de los Muertos work with the plot, the story does have to jump through some hoops in order to work properly (I can understand why the spirit of Miguel’s great-great-grandmother wouldn’t send him back unless he gave up music, but the fact that his other ancestors are afraid to do so just seems overly convenient).

That’s not to say that I have too many complaints with the story. As stated, all of these issues occur in the build-up, and the payoff ultimately makes it all well worth it. But most of Pixar’s best features seem to come together flawlessly. By comparison, Coco’s story may ultimately prove to be a beautiful structure, but it’s on a bit shakier foundations.

Again, these are all quibbles in the end, because when Coco works, it works wonders. The animation is among the best Pixar has ever created, and it is also arguably the best Pixar feature to listen to, with a host of songs written by Robert Lopez and Kristen-Anderson Lopez, the duo who helped make Frozen Disney’s best musical.

Most importantly, Coco lives up to Pixar’s legacy of heartfelt, emotional storytelling. Miguel and Hector end up being some of Pixar’s most likable creations, and the film boasts some heavy themes about death, family and remembering lost love ones. Appropriately, with such subject matter comes some of Pixar’s biggest emotional punches (and boy, is that saying something). In discussions of Pixar’s most heart-tugging moments, it’s usually the opening montage in Up and the ending of Toy Story 3 that are most frequently mentioned (perhaps not surprisingly, I’m partial to the entire third act of Inside Out). But I think the ending sequences of Coco stand next to Inside Out in being the most emotionally powerful and meaningful material in the Pixar canon. During my first viewing, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the theater when Coco’s credits started rolling.

It’s often said that the journey, not the destination, is what’s important. And while that may often be the case, Coco is an example of a flawless ending justifying whatever missteps the journey may have. That’s not to say that the journey of Coco is a troubled one – there are only a couple of bumps in the road early on – but when all is said and done, you’ll probably forgive them for being there, considering what they lead up to.

 

9.0

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown Review

This may sound a bit hyperbolic, but Pokemon 3: The Movie felt like the end of an era. Now, Pokemon’s popularity hasn’t exactly waned at all in the years since the film’s 2001 release (it’s still the biggest merchandise seller of any franchise in any medium, and the games remain best-sellers to this day), but this seemed to mark the end of the world’s initial Pokemania, when Pokemon was an inescapable phenomenon. This was the last Pokemon movie to have a wide theatrical release in the United States (subsequent Pokemon features were relegated to select theaters, before receiving the straight-to-video treatment), and it also seemed to be the point when “pet monster” anime was dying down a bit (even Digimon – the closest thing Pokemon had to a rival – fell off the radar with its third season). Pokemon’s fading omnipresence could be seen in Pokemon 3: The Movie itself, as it wasn’t anywhere near the box-office success of its predecessors. Maybe parents were tired of taking their kids to see Pokemon movies, or perhaps the dwindling box-office returns had something to do with the lack of new Pokemon in the movie, and kids didn’t have as much interest (it would be another two years before the third generation of Pokemon hit stateside). But Pokemon 3: The Movie’s relative unpopularity is a shame, as it might actually be the best of the three original Pokemon features, with strong themes and surprising emotional depth.

Although the hero of the film remains Ash Ketchum, it’s hard to refer to him as the main character this time around. The young Pokemon trainer, along with his friends Pikachu, Misty and a returning Brock may be the stars returning from the show, but Pokemon 3: The Movie primarily focuses on a new character, a young girl named Molly, for its emotional core.

Molly is the five-year old daughter of a research scientist named Spencer Hale, who conducts research on legendary Pokemon. During an expedition to study the mysterious, inter-dimensional Pokemon Unown, Professor Hale is spirited away to another world by the Unown. Molly’s mother has long-since disappeared (the movie never really mentions what happened to her), and now with her father gone, Molly is overwrought with grief. Her father’s assistant brings Molly an ancient, puzzle-like artifact as a memento from her father’s expedition. After tinkering around with the puzzle, Molly unleashes the Unown, who begin using their psychic abilities to bring Molly’s dreams to life.

The Unown’s powers begin to meld with Molly’s grief, and soon she begins to alter reality to make her happy. The Unown turn her hometown into a crystalline palace, she can become a young woman at will, and most importantly, her father returns to her in the form of Entei, Molly’s favorite Pokemon. Within this illusionary dream world, Molly becomes delusional and reclusive, preferring the happiness of the Unown’s illusions to the sadness of her real life.

One thing is still missing from Molly’s life, however; a mother. So Molly sends Entei to find a surrogate mother for her, which happens to be Ash Ketchum’s mother (Molly’s family are long-distance friends of the Ketchums). So Ash and friends journey to Molly’s manor-turned-fairy tale castle to rescue Mrs. Kethum and, hopefully, to help Molly out as well.

It’s a pretty simple plot, but it differentiates itself from its two predecessors by making the stakes more personal (saving Ash’s mom, as opposed to saving the planet from Mewtwo or nature falling out of balance), and with its emphasis on Molly, who is uniquely both the film’s protagonist and antagonist (okay, Ash is technically the protagonist, but this is Molly’s story more than it is Ash’s), it stands out a little more. Not to mention with its themes of loss, loneliness and grief, it’s perhaps the most emotional and deep of the original Pokemon trilogy. I mean, when the central dilemma of a film is a small child’s grieving, it’s hard not to get emotional.

The focus on a new character is a little bit of a double-edged sword, however, seeing as Ash and the other returning characters don’t get nearly as much character development as they did in the second film. I suppose by the third entry you need a bit of a change of pace, but it should say something that Meowth makes a fourth-wall-breaking joke about Team Rocket’s minimized role in this film compared to the second feature.

More on the bright side of things, the popular-for-their-time pop tunes that littered the first movie and had a presence in the second are nowhere to be found. On the downside, that may have been another indicator of the franchise leaving the public eye a bit at the time (having a popular band attached to Pokemon was great promotion back then). But I’d much rather here the cheesy-yet-indelible original songs of Pokemon than hear a distinctly yesteryear pop tune shoehorn its way in.

Following in the footsteps of Pokemon: The Movie 2000, Pokemon 3 has a surprisingly strong original score. I’m not sure if any one track reaches the heights of “Lugia’s Song” from the second film, but its still an effective and memorable score nonetheless.

Once again, the animation takes a step up from the TV show to better fit its presence as a movie. The characters move more fluidly than the TV show to be sure, though it does seem a little inconsistent within itself (sometimes the animation looks like a remarkable improvement, other times, merely an improvement). And like the second feature, we get some fun and varied locations to see, with the sometimes surreal world of Molly’s fantasies being a highlight, and making the first film’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs look even more bland in retrospect.

Pokemon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown may not be a cinematic classic by any means – its structure is sometimes lacking, and certain plot elements feel rushed together – but it is a great reminder that Pokemon can be (and often is) more than the simple money-printing franchise it also very much is. I mean, how many more “legitimate” movie franchises have an entire feature about grieving, and trust that its young audience is wise enough to understand such a heavy concept?

It’s a shame Pokemon 3: The Movie came at the end of Pokemania’s initial run. Despite its (sometimes quite obvious) flaws, its heart is in the right place. And if any of the subsequent Pokemon features shared its heart, then it’s all the more disappointing to see them relegated to the straight-to-video section.

 

7.5

Pokemon: The Movie 2000 Review

In the year 2000, Pokemon was at the height of its popularity. With the second installments – the now-beloved Gold and Silver versions – on the way later in the year, and after the box office success of Pokemon: The First Movie in 1999, Pokemon: The Movie 2000 was sure to be a hit, especially with its emphasis on some of the new Gold and Silver Pokemon. Pokemon: The Movie 2000 didn’t quite reach the ticket sales of its predecessor –  though it is the only anime film that comes close to it in the US box office – it is actually a better movie, with improved character development and a bit of a stronger story.

Pokemon the Movie 2000 sees Pokemon trainer Ash Ketchum, his friends Misty and Tracey, and, of course, the adorable Pokemon Pikachu on an adventure that takes them to Shamouti Island, after a massive storm sends them on a little detour from Ash’s usual Pokemon journeys. The group soon learns that the people of the island are in the middle of a festival, celebrating an ancient prophecy based around the mythical Pokemon Lugia and the three legendary birds; Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres.

The prophecy states that the elemental birds of ice (Articuno), lightning (Zapdos) and fire (Moltres) will lose their balance over the world’s climate, and their ensuing war amongst each other will awaken Lugia, the guardian of the sea, to try to ease the warring birds and bring balance back to nature. But Lugia will need help from a chosen hero and a special song.

A young girl named Melody is the festival’s maiden, and selects Ash to be the “chosen one” of the festival. As the chosen one, Ash is to retrieve three crystal orbs from the islands of the legendary birds, take them to Shamouti’s Shrine (located in the middle of the three islands), where Melody is to play Lugia’s Song.

This turns out to be more than a ceremonial ritual, however, as an obsessed Pokemon collector named Lawrence III seeks to bring the prophecy to fruition – by means of capturing the legendary birds with his immense, flying fortress – in order to awaken Lugia, which Lawrence believes to be his ultimate prize.

Suffice to say Ash’s role as the chosen one ends up being more vital than simply being part of a festival, and due to Lawrence III’s actions Ash’s duties hold the fate of the planet in the balance.

The plot may be a bit simple, and storylines being built around prophecies are always a bit of a tightrope to walk (more often than not, they tell you exactly where the story is going). But Pokemon has that innocent charm about it that makes it hard to resist, and with Lugia’s presence as a mythological creature, it’s a fitting story.

What gives Pokemon the Movie 2000 extra points in the story department, however, is its improved character development. While the first film focused more on Mewtwo’s backstory, 2000 gives Ash the chance to show a more heroic and selfless side, as if his actions towards the end of the first movie carried over and continued for the entirety of the sequel. Misty – though perhaps needing of some more screen time – is also given time to grow as a character.

Perhaps most notably is how this sequel actually gives Team Rocket something important to do, and gives them new dimensions. While they primarily served as bumbling, villainous comic relief in the series (and still do a bit here), Team Rocket’s Jessie, James and Meowth end up playing an integral role in the plot. It’s a shame that the series would more or less retcon all these character changes away, but hey, they’re still enjoyable to watch during the movie.

As is often the case with Pokemon, 2000 has a go at some emotional moments, and is surprisingly effective with them. Look, it’s obviously not Pixar levels of making audiences cry, but its heart is in the right place, and the emotion resonates more than you’d expect from a movie based on a TV show based on a video game.

Much like the first movie, Pokemon the Movie 2000 has improved animation over the TV series. Though it isn’t without some notable limitations, the jump to the big screen gave Pokemon a new visual life. Plus, the island setting and environmental changes (not to mention Lawrence III’s fortress) gives audiences a wider variety of scenery than the first movie’s focus on Mewtwo’s labs.

An even bigger improvement over the show and the previous film is the musical score. While the English version still contains some pop music of the time, they’re mostly saved for the end credits (and hey, we get a Weird Al Yankovic song out of it, so I can’t complain too much). But the original score of Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is surprisingly good, with “Lugia’s Song” in particular being a standout, and seems to have more than a little bit of inspiration from Princess Mononoke.

Pokemon: the Movie 2000 still suffers from some obvious shortcomings; the plot is nothing special, the animation – though improved – still can’t stack up to other anime features of the time, and its villain needed a bit more time on screen for his motivation to resonate.

But y’know, when you get to see Ash Ketchum, Pikachu and Team Rocket traversing a frozen ocean while Lugia has an elemental battle in the sky against three magic birds, it’s all too easy to look past Pokemon the Movie 2000’s flaws as a film and just enjoy it for what it is. It may not be great cinema, but Pokemon: the Movie 2000 is a good Pokemon movie. It got its fanbase hyped for Pokemon Gold and Silver back in the day, especially with its emphasis on Silver’s mascot Pokemon Lugia (who remains my personal favorite legendary Pokemon to this day). Better still, if you’re a Pokemon fan, Pokemon the Movie 2000 is still worth the occasional revisit for its improved characters and overall sense of charm and fun. Plus, Lugia is just so cool.

 

7.0