Tag Archives: Animation

Isle of Dogs Review

Wes Anderson has grown into one of the more prominent film directors of the 21st century. The quirky, off-beat humor of Wes Anderson’s films have given them a style of their own. Though some find Anderson’s style unnatural (the characters of his film’s often seem to know they’re movie characters), even the director’s biggest detractors seemed won over by his debut animated feature, 2009’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Now, nearly a decade later, Anderson has followed up his witty animation debut with Isle of Dogs, a feature whose sharp visuals are matched by its originality.

Isle of dogs is set in a somewhat dystopian near future. In Japan, the country’s dogs have become inflicted with “dog-flu” and “snout fever,” which could potentially spread to humans. In the city of Megasaki, the conniving mayor Kobayashi decrees that every dog in the city be banished to Trash Island, despite claims from Prof. Watanabe that a cure for dog-flu is nearly complete. The first dog to be transferred to Trash Island is Spots, the guard dog of mayor Kobayashi’s orphaned ward, Atari (Koyu Rankin).

Six months later, Atari manages to pilot a small plane to Trash Island, desperate to find his dog. Unfortunately for Atari, his plane crashes on the island, lodging a piece of propeller into his head. Luckily, a gang of ragtag dogs – comprised of Chief (Bryan Cranston), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban) and Boss (Bill Murray) – find and resuscitate the boy, then proceed to join him on his quest to find Spots.

The plot is at once simple yet wildly original. The setup of a boy looking for his dog is certainly among the easiest to sympathize with, but the idea to set the adventure on a trash-covered wasteland is novel, as is the fact that most of the human dialogue is in Japanese (with only a few moments featuring translation) while all the dogs speak English.

It’s that offbeat originality, as well as the film’s deadpan humor and richly detailed animation that make Isle of Dogs one of 2018’s more standout features. This is an undeniably charming film, but perhaps not in the traditional sense of the word ‘charming.’ It may sound a little bit like a downer in concept, what with an entire city’s worth of abandoned dogs fending for themselves in a dystopian junkyard (early in the film, one dog bites off the ear of another in a scrap over some food), but Isle of Dogs is littered with characters whose humor and wit wins us over, and its story has an almost surprising amount of heart, without ever really feeling like it’s trying to wring tears from the audience’s eyes.

That’s before we even get to mentioning the fun little quirks that compliment the film’s personality. For example, it seems like Atari often understands what the dogs are saying, despite the fact that they speak different languages and are of different species. Little things like this, which gleefully avoid explanation when a simpler movie might feel the need to spoon-feed one to its audience, make Isle of Dogs one of those movies that wins you over for its sheer insistence to play by its own rules.

Stop-motion animation is often noted for the sheer arduousness of the process, to the point that even a few moments of it is considered a hefty feat. But Isle of Dogs – like Fantastic Mr. Fox before it – is one of those stop-motion treats where it comes to life seemingly effortlessly. It’s true that stop-motion can’t make things look as ‘perfect’ as CG animation, but that’s part of what plays into its charm. While computer animation is also a taxing accomplishment, the finished product can often disguise the hard work that went into it. But with stop-motion, the craftsmanship – blemishes and all – is on full display, leaving next to nothing to be taken for granted. Laika may get most credit these days for coming the closest to giving stop-motion the same smoothness as CG or hand-drawn animation, but Wes Anderson’s style may be among the most enjoyable to look at. Anderson’s stop-motion features often bask in duller hues and less fantastic character designs than most animated films, but they have an earthly charm to them, and they leave the personalities of the story and characters to provide all the color they need.

Time will tell how well Isle of Dogs stacks up to Fantastic Mr. Fox (if you ask me right now, I don’t think it’s quite as good), but it does follow the same winning formula…which in this case means going against many formulas and just being itself. Isle of Dogs is a funny and strangely heartwarming film that will probably leave you with a big, goofy grin on your face, and an even stronger appreciation for your pets.

 

8.5

Advertisements

The Boss Baby Review

Dreamworks has always been an interesting presence in the world of animation. Though they were once the only studio that could compete with Pixar in the realms of CG animation, they’ve never had the same level of quality control that Pixar has boasted. While Pixar has popped out winner after winner for most of their existence (with a few exceptions), Dreamworks seemingly gives every idea that passes through the studio the green light, leading to a miss or two for every hit. They’ve never really learned their lesson, and fittingly for 2017, a year that was largely inconsistent for movies as a whole, Dreamworks released one of their more shaky pictures in the form of The Boss Baby.

The gist of the story is that a young boy named Tim (Miles Bakshi) gets a new baby brother. But this baby isn’t any ordinary baby. With his finely-tailored suit and business savvy, Tim’s new little brother is the “Boss Baby” (Alec Baldwin). Tim quickly grows resentful of the new baby as he receives all of his parents’ attention.

Things get a little more complicated, however. It turns out, this Boss Baby is a member of Baby Corp., a giant conglomerate run entirely by babies in a sort of ‘before-life.’ Babies are losing popularity to puppies, and the company that Tim’s parents work for, Puppy Co., is planning on releasing a new breed of puppy, one that could put Baby Corp out of business. So the Boss Baby has been sent to Tim’s household (via taxi cab) to try to get info on this new puppy.

It’s a weird movie.

The concept behind the story – of a kid learning how to live with a new baby brother – simple as it is, is actually a decent one for a kids’ movie. And turning the baby into a corporate suit is a humorous twist on the idea (albeit one which is probably better suited for a short format, as opposed to an entire feature). But the small concept is stretched far too thin with the “babies vs. puppies” subplot (not to mention, who am I supposed to root for in that scenario?). And it only gets spread thinner as the movie goes on, with the introduction of an unnecessary villain midway through, and a plot that makes less sense the more you think about it.

Although the film’s marketing may have already had you rolling your eyes at the movie (those adverts really liked that “cookies are for closers” line), the fact that the movie ultimately falls apart is actually a bit of a shame. Because in its early moments, The Boss Baby shows some promise in both its story and humor.

For example, the early moments of the film tell us that Tim has a very active imagination, leaving the audience to think that the baby talking, wearing a suit, and being ‘born’ via taxi are all just Tim’s childhood imagination running wild with interpreting the situation around him. But as the film goes on and the whole corporate rivalry thing gets going, it becomes obvious that this isn’t the case. Not only does this remove a lot of the film’s early charm, but it also ends up raising a lot more questions about the plot than answers (does Puppy Co. actually manufacture dogs like a product? Why are the parents oblivious to the fact that their son arrived to them via taxi cab?) If the film were presented as being told through Tim’s imagination, such questions wouldn’t matter, and the sheer absurdity of it all would actually be made more charming. Instead, The Boss Baby will have you scratching your head asking “wait, so did that really happen to them?” numerous times. Just to hit the point home, there are a few moments where Tim’s imagination does take over, separate from the rest of the goings-on around him and the Boss Baby, confirming that, no matter how bonkers the movie gets, the characters are actually going through all of it.

I certainly don’t have any qualms with the idea of The Boss Baby being more inline with fantasy, but the way it’s structured is off-putting. It goes from possibly being about a kid’s interpretation of life with his new baby brother to something a bit more…wacky.

Along with feeling structurally confused and over-bloated, the movie also can’t help but aim for some obvious potty humor. Some of it works, but just as often you’ll be sighing that the movie didn’t even try to aim higher (we get it, babies poop. What else ya got?).

On the bright side of things, those aforementioned early moments have their charms, and when the humor strays from the obvious, it can be pretty funny (some of the film’s best gags involve Tim talking to his totally-not-Gandalf alarm clock…which goes back to how the movie is at its best when it’s in Tim’s imagination).

Another highlight is the animation, with The Boss Baby boasting some of Dreamworks’ most fluid character movements. And fittingly for a movie about babies, the character designs are cute and charming (those eyes!).

The Boss Baby isn’t a total dud, then. But its concept quickly stretches too thin, when a smaller scale story would have benefitted it greatly, and all too often it aims too low when just the little extra effort could have gone a long way.

Maybe for its target audience, it may provide a good hour and a half of entertainment. But for the older crowd who is becoming more and more accustomed to kids’ movies also appealing to them, The Boss Baby ends up being a missed opportunity.

 

5.0

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 First Movie – Mewtwo Strike’s Back Review

Go back to 1999. Pokemon dominated the Earth. The monster collecting video game franchise got its start in Japan in 1996, but by the time it made its way to the western world in 1998, the games had a wildly successful anime and a trading card game to go with them. And they all hit stateside at the same time, creating a pop culture phenomenon that I don’t think has been equaled in my lifetime.

It’s not hard to see what made Pokemon popular: It’s ever-increasing roster of Pokemon give it a seemingly endless supply of cute and cool characters, its emphasis on collecting, trading and sharing makes it engaging, and its kid-friendly exterior hides a deceptively deep set of rules and mechanics, whether its in its original video game form or the other media that have spawned from it.

Despite being a marketing goldmine (its merchandise sales exceed that of Star Wars even today), Pokemon was always more than that. As stated, the games were (and are) much deeper than they let on, and the TV series – though often lacking in structure, heavy on repetition, and having its share of cheesy moments – similarly made the effort to be something more. It’s shortcomings were still there, of course, but the Pokemon anime made many attempts at pulling at the heartstrings with its themes of friendship, love, and even loss. It wasn’t simply a fun little franchise, but something that really resonated with its target audience.

A Pokemon movie was inevitable, and it arrived sooner than anyone could have guessed. Going back to 1999, a mere year after Pokemon made its way westward, the Pokemon generation was elated to see their beloved franchise make its way to the big screen.

Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back was a big deal in its day (it remains the highest-grossing anime film in North America, with only its immediate sequel coming close), and it remains a nostalgic treat for those like me who were at the center of Pokemania in 1999. Although I wouldn’t classify Pokemon: The First Movie as a great film by any means, I would still label it as something more than a mere guilty pleasure, seeing as it – much like the TV show – made the effort to be something more than the cash-grab cinematic transition it also very much was.

As the title makes quite clear, Pokemon: The First Movie centers around Mewtwo, the legendary Pokemon who was – at the time – the most powerful Pokemon of all. While most Pokemon are like animals, and the other legendary Pokemon are akin to mythological creatures, Mewtwo was engineered by humans in a laboratory, by means of cloning the “first” Pokemon, the legendary Mew.

In the film, Mewtwo’s creation was commissioned by Giovanni, the mysterious leader of the villainous Team Rocket organization. Giovanni manipulates Mewtwo to be his own personal weapon, but as Mewtwo gains greater sentience and begins pondering his existence, he abandons Giovanni in hopes of making a greater purpose for himself. Mewtwo plans on creating his own cloned Pokemon to inhabit the Earth, after he rids it of humans and the Pokemon of the natural world (beginning with a massive storm that Mewtwo is creating using his psychic powers).

It’s a pretty heavy story for Pokemon, with the point being hit home when Mewtwo destroys the lab that created him (killing all the scientists therein) within the first few minutes. No one died in the TV series up to this point, so that shift in subject matter definitely made this feel like Pokemon the movie.

Mewtwo decides to prove the worth of his clone Pokemon by posing as “the world’s greatest Pokemon master,” inviting trainers over to New Island to do battle. Among these trainers are the series’ original heroes Ash Ketchum, Brock and Misty. The trio – like the other trainers invited to New Island – are unaware of Mewtwo’s identity and of his clone Pokemon, and are only looking to test their Pokemon battle skills. When the trainers arrive and discover Mewtwo’s intentions, they find themselves trying to stop the legendary Pokemon’s plot.

It’s not exactly anything Earth-shatteringly new, but as stated, it certainly made Pokemon feel more dire than it did on the small screen. On the downside of things, the English version of the movie shoehorned a “fighting is wrong” message into the film, which is repeated ad nauseam in a single scene towards the end. Given the nature of the Pokemon franchise, with trainers battling each other with their Pokemon, it’s kind of hard for an anti-fighting message to resonate very strongly. Sure, the point the movie tries to make is that the fighting caused by Mewtwo is something truly brutal, as opposed to the competitive skirmishes of Pokemon battles, but all the movie does to make that point is say “Pokemon aren’t supposed to fight… not like this.” Granted, I understood that even as a kid, but I was familiar with Pokemon. I can’t imagine the parents who took their kids to see this movie in 1999 could understand the difference between a Pokemon battle and what the movie refers to as “fighting.”

It’s simply a forced message that doesn’t really work with the movie that’s presenting it, and it’s made all the less impactful due to the climactic battle between Pokemon and clones being accompanied by a pop tune that’s only included for the sake of a pop tune, which only clashes with the movie.

The Japanese version of Mewtwo Strikes Back better emphasizes the message of man playing God and its consequences, what with Mewtwo’s search for a purpose and all that. The English version may have benefitted both narratively and (perhaps) critically if it focused on that message instead of one that clashes with the nature of the franchise.

There are also some notable flaws with the translated version, with at least three Pokemon being referred to by the wrong name (confusing Pidgeot for Pidgeotto and Sandslash for Sandshrew are at least understandable, but when Team Rocket refers to a Syther as an Alakazam, it’s a hilariously glaring error to any Pokemon fan). Though at the very least I suppose there’s a bit of nostalgic irony to be had with these mistakes, but you do have to wonder if the translators had any reference material to avoid such errors.

In terms of animation, Pokemon: The First Movie is of course an improvement over the TV series, with more fluid character movements and more detailed backgrounds. Granted, it still has its visual limitations, but in its stronger moments, Pokemon: The First Movie has that distinct “90s anime” look that has held up pretty well. And excluding the shoehorned inclusions of 90s bands such as *NSYNC, the music is actually not bad, and hearing that original Pokemon theme brought up to scale for a movie still gives me goosebumps.

Pokemon: The First Movie suffers from some obvious flaws and shortcomings (including a brief running time, with the film’s theatrical release being accompanied by a Pokemon short film to add an extra 20 minutes). But what elevates it to being something more than a mere guilty pleasure of nostalgia for me are its attempts at emotional moments, some of which are actually quite successful. One scene towards the end in particular, is surprisingly effective. Hey, when Pikachu is crying, it’s hard to not get a little misty-eyed.

In the end, Pokemon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back is far from a great movie (its sequels – though flawed in their own right – were improvements), but it makes enough worthwhile attempts to be something more that it still provides some entertainment. Despite all the blemishes, Pokemon: The First Movie is still a nostalgia trip that I don’t feel guilty about taking from time to time.

 

6.5