Growing up in the 90s I was a huge fan of the Pokémon franchise. Hell, I still am. I still plays the games, I have collectibles, I even still have some of my cards in a box in my closet. It was a major part of my childhood and even as an adult it’s a part of my identity. For those who don’t know, today, Feb. 27, 2021, is Pokémon Day celebrating the 25th anniversary of the franchise’s debut in Japan and thus the official start of what would become a phenomenon. Over that two-and-a-half-decade span Pokémon has evolved into a media empire expanding beyond the games to include playing cards, toys, a television show and, of course, movies. “Pokémon The First Movie” was probably the first film ever that I genuinely wanted to see on the big screen. Released in 1998 in Japan and 1999 in the United States, “Pokémon: The First Movie” grossed $172.7 million at the box office on a $5 million budget becoming the highest grossing animated movie in the United States based on an anime and is still in the top five highest grossing movies ever based on a TV program worldwide. So today, in honor of Pokémon Day and the 25th anniversary of this franchise, I’m going to revisit this iconic first movie which served as a huge part of not just my childhood, but the young years of millennials and early Gen-Zers in general. Let’s take a look at “Pokémon The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back” in retrospect! It goes without saying but SPOILER ALERT for anyone who has not seen the movie yet.
“Pokémon The First Movie” is actually split into three segments although not every region got to see all three upon its initial release. In America we had all three. The first was a special featuring Pokémon’s main icon, Pikachu, called “Pikachu’s Vacation”. At the time this short introduced the world to several new Pokémon that wouldn’t be officially included in the games until the second generation, mainly Marrill and Snubbull. I was never really a fan of “Pikachu’s Vacation”, which focuses on Ash’s Pokémon competing in games against a rival group of Pokémon, but it had a nice message about putting aside differences to achieve common goals and the negative effects of showboating and chest thumping. The real journey started with the prologue which was the part of the film that some regions didn’t see. The ten-minute “Origin of Mewtwo” short introduced us the titular Pokémon who would be the main antagonist of the movie. This opening brought to life the creation of Mewtwo using the DNA of the legendary 151st Pokémon Mew which was hinted at in the video games through journals found on Cinnabar Island. The prologue also connects directly back to the show where viewers had previously seen an armored Mewtwo take on Ash’s rival Gary. In the movie we get to see how Mewtwo got to this moment and escaped and thus the actual film began!
The movie, like the show it was based on, focused on Ash Kechum and his friends, Brock and Misty, who are invited to a mysterious island by a master Pokémon trainer. When they arrive, after braving a treacherous storm, they find this trainer to actually be Mewtwo himself who steals the Pokémon of the trainers that made the trip and clones them for his own use. Battles ensue and the film tries to teach us lessons about the negatives of violence and the truth about destiny. This is where a lot of people are split on the merit of the movie, myself included. First, the negative. One of the two main themes of the film is that violence is wrong…a reminder this is a movie based on a video game about animals fighting each other and the moral is that “Pokémon weren’t made to fight”? Now I’m all for ending animal cruelty, but this is the crux of your entire media empire, battling animals. Isn’t it kind of hypocritical to preach about fighting being wrong in a franchise where the entire idea is to fight? Wouldn’t this be like “Mortal Kombat” concluding that “killingly is bad” when that’s kind of the idea? This hypocritical theme was one of the biggest issues critics, and a subset of fans, had with the movie and years later is only feels like an even more glaring problem after generations of games continued the fighting spirit of the franchise. To this day there are numerous organizations (mainly PETA) using Pokémon’s fighting system against it as inspiring animal cruelty and while I can’t say whether or not this moral in the film was the result of poor translations because I’ve never seen the Japanese dub, it does serve as a glaring issue in the English version especially in hindsight where Pokémon essentially points out the most basic flaw in its own system while saying “but it’s okay if we ask you to do it”. I get that it fits in the moment and it’s implied that Pokémon aren’t meant to fight “like this”, meaning as tools of war, but it still feels like a double standard out of context.
But then you have the second part of the theme, the idea of destiny. This is the theme that shines brightest for me and I think still sticks with fans of the series even years later. Mewtwo by most accounts is a sympathetic villain in this movie. He’s a human-made genetic creation built to be a fighting machine. He wasn’t meant to be his own being and so when he escapes his captivity he begins a journey to discover his purpose and why he was made. This is pretty powerful stuff and drives his anger towards human and Pokémon alike. He’s not a real Pokémon so he doesn’t feel he belongs there and he was created and abused by humans so he wants revenge against them. He feels like he has no home in a world where he wasn’t naturally born to exist. Basically he’s a psychic type in need of some serious therapy, how poetic. By the time we get to the end we have a powerful moment where Ash sacrifices himself and the Pokémon bring him to life with their tears (I watned you about spoilers at the beginning so don’t blame me if you didn’t see this coming). Yeah it’s corny, but 90s kids balled their eyes out at this scene so don’t judge. This is enough to inspire Mewtwo to rethink his ways and to spout probably the most iconic line in all of Pokémon aside from “gotta catch ‘em all”:
“I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are” – Mewtwo
Even just typing that gave me goosebumps. A 90s kids movie based on a video game about fighting animals dropped one of the best truth bombs of the entire decade. Fans have immortalized this line on T-shirts, inspirational memes, etc. and it’s not hard to see why. The 90s was a time where kids were taught they could be WHATEVER they wanted. Yes, we were given participation trophies and grew up acting like we owned the world but that’s because we were taught that we did. Our parents founded the trophy concept and said we could “be whatever we wanted to be” and while I could go on a tangent I’m not here to spark a culture war between Millennials and Gen X. Far from it. My point in fact is that the generation before us, our parents, tried so hard to inspire us using these tools and phrases and while they didn’t completely work out it did instill in us a longing to escape the binds of our predetermined limitations. For some this was easier said than done. Some came from lower income families or bad neighborhoods or, hell, bad families and it was easy to doubt that they truly could be whatever they wanted to be due to the limits life presented them as accidents of birth. For a lot of us “Pokémon The First Movie” used one simple sentence to provide us the hope and inspiration we needed to challenge these roadblocks head on. It was the final push in a decade where those growing into young adulthood were taught that we needed to make the world better than we found it. That it wasn’t about the trophy but the pride of just being part of a team or that yes we could be whatever we wanted but it was up to us to challenge the walls put up to stop us from getting there. Mewtwo became a symbol for many young fans who were unsure of themselves or whether or not they could break away from those limits and escape the binds of their circumstance. We were taught, through a kids film mind you, not to let the anger and frustration control you and do what you can to find your own destiny because who someone IS can’t be defined by who someone WAS or where they came from. Powerful stuff from a stupid video game movie, right?
Over the years “Pokémon” has released countless more movies on the big and small screen, some as memorable as the first movie, some better, but most of them worse in my opinion. The first three films in the series are, in my opinion, the best ones to enjoy with “Pokémon The Movie 2000” being my personal favorite while “Pokémon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unknown” is largely considered to be the best of the original three films by critics. The first movie eventually got a full 3-D remake in an attempt to connect with modern audiences (you can read my review here) but it just wasn’t the same. “Pokémon The First Movie” will always have a special place in my heart as one of the first films I truly wanted to see in a theater, even if I ultimately had to wait until the VHS release, and its core message about one’s destiny being defined by who you are and now where you came from is something I think kids even today should be taught especially in a world of increasingly present social justice movements and conservativism that are often clashing over what is wrong, right, moral or immoral. Yeah, the “violence is wrong” narrative is hypocritical, but I look back on it with a sense of ironic joy that Pokémon at least acknowledge that the formula that made it an empire is built off a double standard. While it might not have really held up over the decades, “Pokémon The First Movie” is still a special part of the franchise’s history and an iconic piece of international cinema that helped define the childhoods of Pokéfanatics like myself across the globe!
Happy Pokémon Day everyone!