Summer is upon us, and that means driving around with music blasting and windows down. My car doesn’t have an AUX jack, so I have to go a little bit old-school by digging old CDs out or burning new ones, and one of my favorite things to drive to is my copy of the Pokémon: The First Movie soundtrack. I was listening to it the other day when I realized I had this post to write, and it was a quick jump from there to throw this Thursday back to the source: Pokémon: The First Movie.
After a brief scrap with and some deeply worrying grinding noises from my old VCR, I got our old, much-loved copy of this 1998 movie to start up. Even the trailers were a blast from the past—a Mary-Kate and Ashley movie, a Batman Beyond straight-to-VHS offering, and even an ad for the soundtrack. The movie itself doesn’t begin right away after that—rather there’s the brief and silly short Pikachu’s Vacation.
Then, finally, we get to the good stuff.
The plot starts like this: some scientists who’ve never seen Jurassic Park find a fossil of the ancient pokémon Mew and decide it would be a great idea to clone a new pokémon out of its DNA. They give Mewtwo, the Pokémon they cloned, psychic powers, and Mewtwo immediately does Jurassic Park one better by developing sentience, having an existential crisis, and escaping and destroying their prison. (I’m going with they/them pronouns for Mewtwo, by the way—they don’t really have a gender and ‘it’ seems weird.) Our usual villain, Giovanni, shows up in the wreckage and immediately makes the situation worse by tricking Mewtwo into briefly working for him. This ultimately just screws over the rest of humanity, since he makes Mewtwo think that all humans are also dickholes like he is. Mewtwo escapes again and vows to subjugate anyone who opposes them. Yikes.
Cut to our heroes: Ash, Misty, and Brock are among a huge group of trainers that are invited to do battle with Mewtwo, but when they arrive at Mewtwo’s island lair (with the uninvited Team Rocket in tow, of course), Mewtwo beats up all the trainers and steal all their Pokémon. They use these Pokémon to make superior clones, which they then—successfully—battle against the originals.
Mewtwo scorns the idea that Pokémon can be friends with their trainers, and disdains those Pokémon for sympathizing with what they consider slavemasters. Everything looks like it’s going from bad to terrible, so Ash tries to take on Mewtwo himself—incredibly unsuccessfully. However, the tides appear to have turned when the original Mew, who’s been sneaking around in the background this whole time, shows up to tell Mewtwo that fighting is not the answer. Mewtwo furiously sends all of the cloned Pokémon into battle against their originals. Ash, reeling from his attempt to fight Mewtwo, returns to the battlefield once again to witness the saddest scene ever: all of the Pokémon fighting each other while a catchy ballad about the futility of war plays in the background. Mewtwo attacks Mew, and Ash, caught in the crossfire of their psychic battle, is turned to stone. Pikachu desperately tries to revive him with Thundershock after Thundershock, but… it’s not very effective. (Sorry, I had to.)
Pikachu’s despair leads to tears, though, and its tears inspire tears from the rest of the Pokémon present as well. These tears magically revive Ash. Mewtwo is touched by this, and realizes that it’s what you do, not how you were born, that makes you who you are. They set off with Mew and the other cloned Pokémon to ponder this revelation. In the meantime, they use their psychic powers to wipe the memories of everyone who was on their island… so that this movie will have no effect on the ongoing plot of the TV show. (I can’t think of any other reason to remove everything that happened from continuity.)
When I began rewatching this movie, I didn’t expect to care about it for reasons other than nostalgia. It’s been a long time since I played or watched Pokémon anything, and I’m not looking to get back into it. (For one thing, I don’t need to find out if I have the brain capacity to memorize the Pokémon beyond the first 151.) But the story of this movie holds up reasonably well over time—the plot is interesting, and while it’s sometimes kind of corny, the villain is surprisingly dark and complex for the source material. While Mewtwo might seem like a clichéd character on the face of things, watching this movie was the first time I actively remember thinking “what do Pokémon think of their lot in life?” While the bulk of Pokémon aren’t sentient like Mewtwo, Mewtwo’s beef with humans did make me think about the greater morality of Pokémon battling.
That said, as a kid I wasn’t thinking super hard about it, because if I had, I’d have arrived at my biggest sticking point after my grown-up rewatch: there is a deep irony in saying that Mewtwo forcing the Pokémon to fight their doubles is bad. The Pokémon are kicking the shit out of each other, and Brock exclaims, “Doesn’t Mewtwo realize it’s wrong to make Pokémon fight like this?”
….Um, dude. You and your friends literally do nothing but make Pokémon fight each other. That’s what the entire franchise is based on: adorable animals kicking the shit out of each other until one of them gives up or passes out. Is it the specific way in which Mewtwo is making them fight that’s so objectionable? If they were fighting one-on-one on the field and you were choosing the attacks as opposed to them having an all-out Pokémelee, would that be okay? That said, there is a pretty solid message of not giving into your hate and looking for a peaceful way to resolve your differences at the core of the story. Meowth pretty succintly sums up the moral after refusing to fight his own double: “Maybe if we started looking at what’s the same, instead of always looking at what’s different, well, who knows?” Who knows, indeed, Meowth. The potential of the human race (and of Pokémon, I guess) is limitless—but only if we can accept each others’ differences and work together to reach it. It’s a kind of generic message, since it isn’t applied to any specific, real-world “differences”, but as generic lessons go, there are worse ones to teach kids.
In the end, this was definitely worth the rewatch, and I imagine this won’t be the last time I see it (although I may have to eventually cave and buy a DVD). If you, like me, have fond memories of your Poképast, I definitely recommend revisiting this movie.