Review: Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!

Distributor: Fathom Events
Director:
Kunihiko Yuyama
Writers:
Takeshi Shudo (early screenplay), Satoshi Tajiri (concept), Soji Yonemura (screenplay)
Composer:
Shinji Miyazaki
Starring:
Sarah Natochenny, Ikue Otani, Suzy Myers, David Olliver Nelson
Genre:
Adventure, Family, Fantasy
Rating:
Not Rated

It’s hard to believe that Pokémon has been around for twenty years, though unlike other franchises, it has never really left the scene during its tremendous double-decade run. Today it has a wide variety of fans, from small children to dedicated adults, as well as those who simply look back on it with fond memories from their childhood. This leaves Pokémon with the difficult task of trying to appeal to all these demographics simultaneously.

Normally the Pokémon films feature characters from the latest season of the anime, which is tied in alongside the newest game release. Yet I Choose You bucks this trend with a retelling of the Pokémon origin story. Whether it is intended to be a standalone or a reboot with later installments to come, the one thing that is clear is that this film is a massive nostalgia trip for all those who were tortured with having to choose from among Bulbasaur, Squirtle or Charmander.

Note: This review is of the English dubbed version, which enjoyed a limited, two-day theatrical release in the United States.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Pokémon are mighty animals with elemental powers. Pokémon-VS-Pokémon battles are a core premise of the film, where the creatures fight until one opponent loses consciousness, although a quick trip to the hospital instantly heals all wounds. A boy throws rocks at birds and manages to hit one on the head, angering it. A human callously kicks a Pokémon in the gut, though his behavior is quickly rebuked.

Sometimes wild Pokémon attack humans. In one scene, two characters are relentlessly chased and pecked by a flock of birds. Multiple characters are threatened with being squished to death by a giant rock creature. A large, intimidating Pokémon shoots giant fireballs at humans and tiny Pokémon alike. There is a long battle sequence where dangerous attacks with the power to explode rocks are continuously fired upon the protagonists. Several characters fall off cliffs or are thrown into the air, though in a light-hearted, slapstick style where the consequences don’t reflect reality.

Some characters do die. When retelling an ancient legend, it is said that numerous characters burned to death, though this aspect of the story is not shown on camera. A character falls asleep in a snowstorm and never wakes up. A character is hit by multiple Pokémon attacks–their body is seen fading away into the afterlife. One character falls extremely ill, with the risk of passing away overnight.

Language/Crude Humor: Extremely light. Some characters are called derogatory or hurtful things, such as “loser.”

Drug/Alcohol References: A medicine is sprayed onto an injured Pokémon.

Spiritual Content: One character has the ability to resurrect others from the dead. There is a scene set in the afterlife, which consists of traveling through a grassy field.

Sexual Content: None.

Other Negative Content: The movie holds contradictory views towards animal cruelty. A trainer kicking his Pokémon is portrayed as reprehensible, but throwing a rock at a wild creature is portrayed as acceptable. Animal fights are an established part of this fictional world, though there at least appears to be some of sort of consent given from the Pokémon participants.

Positive Content: The film provides a visual representation of what it means to be pure of heart. Selfishness, seeking power over others, and shunning help from friends results in tainting one’s goodness. The story promotes the virtues of being kind and caring, while also advocating the importance of fostering friendships, sacrificial love, and good sportsmanship.

Review

Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You boldly attempts to appeal to its multiple demographics. It’s a hodgepodge of ideas. Like a trainer’s team of six in a Nuzlocke run, it may be imperfect with plenty of room to improve, but it gets the job done.

If you’ve followed the franchise for the last twenty years, or at least were around when Pokémon first exploded into popular culture, then brace yourself for a lovely nostalgia trip. The movie starts off closely following the events of the first episode of the anime, though at a faster pace. Ash faces the ultimate conundrum (Bulbasaur, Squirtle, or Charmander?), befriends Pikachu thanks to some sacrificial actions in front of a flock of Spearow, and is graced with Ho-Oh’s presence—all in the space of ten minutes.

To those who have picked up the franchise more recently, this opening serves as a nice overview of Ash and Pikachu’s origin story. However, it is at this point where the film diverges from the canonical proceedings of the television show. It’s best to think of Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You as a massive “what if?” that explores what would have followed if Ash had been presented with the Rainbow Wing.

Some beloved characters are notably absent, whilst others are present only for fan service. Only half of Ash’s original team of six are featured, though they are arguably the ones with the strongest character arcs, heavily contributing to the movie’s themes of sportsmanship, trust, loyalty, and friendship. Brock and Misty are sadly replaced—copied and pasted with two Sinnoh trainers, Sorrel and Verity, though thankfully they are more tolerable than other sidekicks have been in the past.

For the first time, the Pokémon world presented in this film feels like a global entity. Numerous non-Kanto species make appearances throughout, which will please fans of the more recent generations, though the local wildlife is still rightfully Kanto-based. No longer is Ash seemingly the only trainer who is traveling to other parts of the world—it’s only logical that one would stumble across others who are doing likewise. Unfortunately, despite having an arsenal of over 800 Pokémon to choose from, the producers spotlight only the more popular species (like Lucario) that tend to pop up in these feature-length stories.

Once again Team Rocket make a pointless appearance. Their predictable shenanigans have now become a staple joke of the franchise, though I Choose You takes their incompetence to a new extreme—essentially having them wave to the audience to check off their cameo requirement.

Yet who can really blame the marketing team for doing their job? As was true for previous films, the marketing and business sides of the Pokémon franchise play a major role in selecting the key details of the story. With this film celebrating 20 years of Pokémon, and no doubt trying to lure in newcomers, it’s only natural that the origin story be retold—while also featuring legendary Pokémon that are currently prominent in Pokémon Go, introducing Marshadow, tying in with the latest generation in the games, and connecting to the upcoming release of Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon.

One of these items is not like the others, though: Marshadow. Ever since the 4th generation and the inclusion of Arceus, the roles of the legendary Pokémon have become more convoluted than the mythological ramblings of Supernatural. With at least five legendaries being added with each subsequent generation, theirs has become a bloated lore that’s now collapsing under its own weight. Ho-Oh’s backstory is solid, though Marshadow’s presence feels shoehorned in and makes little sense. It’s a shame, too, because Marshadow’s early appearances in the film are a real treat for fans, though by the conclusion, the Pokémon’s motivations seem incomprehensible and merely there to ensure the story hits its usual clichéd milestones.

I Choose You is a case of same-old, same-old in many ways, though it does finally rectify a number of long-standing issues with its main protagonist, Ash Ketchum. With the Pokédex being oddly absent in this retelling, those lines of exposition are now delivered by Ash, which means he’s finally smart enough to know a Pidgey when he spies one. The movie also directly questions what being a Pokémon Master actually means. Ash replies that’s it’s not necessarily about being great at battling, but about forming relationships with his teammates. This casts his character in a new light. No longer is he the maligned failure in comparison to Red’s achievements, but rather Ash may very well be an accomplished trainer based on these different parameters.

There’s also a lovely story arc regarding Ash’s standard brash and foolish behavior. Yet this moment is one of the few that seems crafted with any sense of structure. For the most part I Choose You feels like a series of vignettes, with the Rainbow Wing being a loose narrative spine that haphazardly connects all the sub-plots together. This means the flow is disjointed and travels at a fast pace. Those who are completely new to the Pokémon world have a steep learning curve before them, and will no doubt only obtain a cursory understanding of what is happening.

Fans have come to expect that the franchise, generally speaking, has always been weak in the storytelling department, instead being more memorable for its impressive battling mechanics. I Choose You is no exception, though while it’s scarred with many flaws, its nostalgia is strong. When the piano keys blast and the words, “I want to be the very best,” belt out, it takes every fiber in your body not to sing along. The end credits are also littered with nods to all the generations—both from the anime series and the games.

It would be easy to palm this movie off as a nostalgia kick, though it should not be underestimated. Bring the tissues, because this film knows Sucker Punch. The multiple sub-plots might feel busy and only remotely related to each other, but somehow they still manage to carry their full emotional weight. With both new twists and old, I Choose You manages to find the power to devastate its audience, despite throwing out the rulebook when it comes to traditional storytelling.

As a film, it’s an assortment of candy—some favorites, some all-time classics, and some unloved bits that sink to the bottom of the bag and are never gobbled up. Yet having a mixed bag of candy is a whole lot more enjoyable than not getting any candy at all. Despite some obvious flaws, Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You is still wonderfully entertaining, beautifully animated, and one of the better Pokémon  movies out there. Newcomers may feel overwhelmed by the plethora of fictional creatures, but there’s much to enjoy for established fans of the franchise.

Positives

+ Animation + The nostalgia is real + Showcases the strongest parts of the early anime + All the feels + Ash's character is more well-rounded

Negatives

- Cookie-cutter sidekicks - No risks taken in Pokémon species selection - Team Rocket - Marshadow's nonsensical role and third act

The Bottom Line

With a split focus in regards to demographics, and one too many sub-plots to reel in, Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You should not, in theory, be as entertaining as it is. It’s messy, but it still carries emotional weight and will appeal most strongly to original fans.

 

7.3

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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