For the first time in over a decade (for many in the West, at least), Pokémon has hit our cinema screens again with Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You!, and I was lucky enough to attend one of its few screenings in the UK (though “due to popular demand”, two more dates have been added on the 11th and 14th of this month). Having seen every Pokémon movie to date – both theatrical releases and the straight-to-DVD ones (which are the majority) – I wanted to provide a personal review of Ash’s latest adventure on the big screen, which is a reboot of where it all started for the 10-year-old wannabe Pokémon Master. Naturally, the following will contain both minor and major spoilers, the latter very clearly marked, so if you haven’t seen the film and wish to watch it without anything spoiled whatsoever, you should RUN from battle now. You have been warned!
When the first revelations of Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You! emerged, the film seemed to present itself as a reimagined celebratory look back over Ash’s near two-decade journey – well at least to this scribe anyway. However, those expecting this will be in for a surprise. Instead, I Choose You has its own story and also homes in on the events of Season 1: Indigo League. But rather than simply retelling the pivotal plot points of the debut season, it presents them in a whole new light via some sleek and tight visuals, as well as accompanied by some sweet reproductions of our favourite songs from the anime, making these moments feel fresh to both veterans and newcomers alike – all while intertwining them within the main plot itself.
Setting the Tone from the Very Beginning
The film starts as Season 1 Episode 1 (Pokémon, I Choose You!) of the anime did, where Ash is late to Professor Oak’s Lab due to oversleeping and fails to acquire a Squirtle, a Bulbasaur, or a Charmander (that order is actually his preference of Starter Pokémon choice), and is instead left with a rather uncooperative and moody electric rodent, a Pikachu. From here, many of the happenings in the first episode of the anime occur, such as Ash failing to capture a Pidgey (much to the amusement of Pikachu), as well as the famous Spearow scene, where a flock of them chase the duo; this leads to Ash protecting his newly acquired partner, forever cementing their bond, trust, and friendship.
While this all strikes the nostalgic chords of the many who grew up with the anime, the portrayal of this scene doesn't exactly match the events of how it manifested in its television show equivalent. For example, Ash doesn’t take Misty’s bike to escape – let alone even meet her for that matter – and so as mentioned previously the movie aims to retell the events of Ash’s history, yet present them with a fresh perspective in combination with the primary story. In fact, this theme is present throughout the film, as several memorable Season 1 moments of the anime are included, but again, not in the way many may have remembered. Examples include Ash finding an abandoned Charmander with a weak flame at the tip of its tail, as well as Ash letting go of his Butterfree so it can fly south with its new pink companion.
Characters Old and New
As just mentioned, Ash doesn’t meet Misty, and the same goes for Brock. Aside from a minor showing during the credits, the two Kanto Gym Leaders don’t make an appearance in the film at all, which may be to the dismay of some. We’re instead introduced to two new spiritual character replacements who accompany Ash throughout his journey. The first is Verity, an energetic Trainer from Twinleaf Town, accompanied by her Starter Pokémon, Piplup. She also possesses a Lapras, which Ash and friends use to cross the waters of Kanto. She vaguely mentions that her mother is a powerful Pokémon Trainer, and that she feels she can’t live up to her standards and thus hasn’t spoken to her since leaving home. There are revelations around the identity of Verity’s mother later in the movie, too.
The second is Sorrel, a young Trainer from Veilstone City who aspires to become a Pokémon Professor, accompanied by his sidekick, Lucario. He later reveals that his family owned a Luxray, and on one cold and snowy day his Luxray sacrificed itself to shield Sorrel from the cold. It’s all seemingly deep stuff from both characters’ backstories, but unfortunately these aren’t explored much further at all, which I personally feel is a major letdown. There is no “connecting” triumph for both characters and their backstories – for example we don’t see Verity meet her mother or Sorrel accomplish something in the film that relieves or remedies his past – and so these insights into both characters’ pasts seem almost irrelevant and pointless, aside from perhaps winning over the audience via empathy and sympathy cards.
We're also introduced to Ash's main rival of the film, Cross, an arrogant Trainer who, like many of the rivals presented throughout Pokémon's anime and video game series, believes that raw strength and power are the keys needed in becoming the ultimate Trainer. That's right folks, there's no Gary Oak – although he does make a very brief appearance right at the beginning, where he's shown choosing a Squirtle out of the three Starter Pokémon. Cross has a Midnight Form Lycanroc that accompanies him, as well as a ferocious Incineroar that he uses for battle. Cross's verbiage, actions, and overall demeanour makes him an easily dislikable character, and this is demonstrated even further when Ash, Verity and Sorrel find out about an act of cruelty by their foe. This is linked with another memorable episode from the anime, but once again diverts from it, making the scene another great example of how the film presents old ideas with a new twist.
As for returning characters, Professor Oak and Ash's mum make appearances in the earlier stages of the film, as well as Nurse Joy throughout. It delights me to say that so do Team Rocket (Jessie, James, and Meowth), however, while comical, their roles are very insignificant – at no point do they actually meet Ash and friends, and instead clumsily "blast off again" for a total of three times. It's a shame really, for someone like myself who grew up with the anime would've liked them to have said their motto at the very least, or at least pose some form of threat to Ash and friends. Instead though, their roles are purely for comedy and serve no purpose to the main plot. Akin to Misty and Brock, more memorable faces of the anime make minor appearances in the film's credits, for those eager fans that stick around.
The Crux of the Story
Getting to the main story here, Ash, like in the anime, sees the Legendary Pokémon Ho-Oh after the Spearow incident who, unlike in the anime, leaves him with a Rainbow Wing. We soon learn from Sorrel that the Ho-Oh only gives the Rainbow Wing to the "Rainbow Hero", who is deemed the chosen one to fight it. Yeah, Ash is yet again "the chosen one", a common theme in Pokémon films involving the Pallet Town hero. Along the venture, the trio encounter three Legendary Pokémon on separate occasions. Under normal circumstances, even seeing one of them is an extremely rare feat, but Sorrel explains that due to Ash's possession of the Rainbow Wing, the likelihood of encountering them is greater due to a legend that links them to Ho-Oh. For Pokémon Gold, Silver, and Crystal fans, this part of the plot should prove to be a delight due to a focus on Generation II, albeit set in Kanto. But even if you prefer other generations of Pokémon, the film does a great job of including references and critters from all generations throughout the film.
Lurking in the shadows and watching over Ash and his crew is a Mythical Pokémon (I won't spill the beans on what it is just in case it isn't known to everyone yet). It acts as some form of "agent" for the Ho-Oh, discretely and indirectly guiding Ash to Mount Tensei, the location of where Ash's destined battle with the phoenix-like Pokémon is to take place. Though depicted as somewhat suspicious at first, the Mythical Pokémon proves to have good intentions, for it puts Ash in a sleep-like state where he dreams of a world where no Pokémon exist. This happens shortly after Ash lives through a humbling experience in which he becomes upset and frustrated, openly admitting a few dark thoughts that shock Verity, Sorrel, and Pikachu. The dream serves as a sort of wake-up call to Ash, and is pivotal in shaping his journey.
As the adventure continues, the progression of Ash's "career" as a Trainer is made apparent, for we're shown scenes of him winning the Rainbow Badge (yeah, the whole theme of the film is rainbows), as well as his Pokémon evolving. It's a nice and welcomed touch, for while the main story of Ash and the Rainbow Wing keeps its presence throughout the movie, scenes taking us through Ash's journey sprinkle themselves in between some of the major plot points, which is a fun change of pace to those that recall the original anime.
(WARNING: the next two paragraphs – especially the second – contain heavy spoilers. If you wish to be free of these, please read past them.)
As the film heads to its climax, Ash and friends reach Mount Tensei, where they meet a heavily-bearded man named Bonji, a researcher who has been studying Ho-Oh (he's also shown briefly in a previous scene within a page of a book that Sorrel reads – and for the keen-eyed, there may be more to him than what's presented). Ash is told that he must place the Rainbow Wing on one of the crystal-like structures in order for the Ho-Oh to appear. However, after a string of events, the Mythical Pokémon, which I will now reveal is a Marshadow, turns the surrounding native Pokémon evil to attack Ash and his friends. Ash, Verity, Sorrel, and a fourth individual (not Bonji) use their Pokémon to attempt to keep the evil Pokémon at bay, but before long are overwhelmed by the Marshadow's possessive powers. It's quite unclear as to why the Marshadow turns evil so suddenly – in fact its entire depiction within the film from start to finish seems indecisive, for aside from the aforementioned dream scene, it's quite hard to tell whether it has good or bad intentions throughout.
A few moments later, Ash stands in front of Pikachu and aims to protect it from the barrage of beams and blasts fired by the possessed Pokémon, all while urging it to get into its Poké Ball for safety – mirroring the Spearow scene shown in the beginning and in the anime. Pikachu refuses, but eventually Ash forces Pikachu in its ball, which is quite a shocking moment considering Ash's Pikachu has never gotten into any type of Poké Ball, ever (unless you count the scene from Pokémon The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, where one of Mewtwo's Clone Balls captures Pikachu). Ash is destroyed by the projectile attacks, and after the smoke settles, Ash is seen as energy which eventually disintegrates, as does the Rainbow Wing itself. This part of the film is strange, as it is depicted that Ash has died due to his "soul" slowly fading away. Ash can then be seen in a purgatory-like state, but is then brought back to life by the Ho-Oh (presumably) after a sentimental conversation he has with Pikachu. That's right, a conversation with Pikachu. It's this part of the film that's been making the rounds and causing the most controversy online, as well as the most noise in the cinema screening I was in for that matter, for Pikachu speaks the English language. Now of course, it can be assumed that Pikachu isn't actually speaking English, but that Ash is understanding what Pikachu is saying to him in "Pika" lingo, and is presented in English for us to understand, but nevertheless, this is one cringeworthy moment – at least to me. I've never liked Pokémon speaking in films, but it's shown to work at times, such as with Mewtwo in the first Pokémon movie. But this just doesn't feel quite right. Regardless, Ash comes back to life, the Pokémon are no longer possessed, and the Marshadow returns back to normal. Ash then places the Rainbow Wing onto the pedestal, and battles the Ho-Oh with Pikachu. The outcome of this battle is not known, for the scene cuts to the Pokémon Center, where Ash hands in a, although quite battered, upbeat Pikachu to Nurse Joy for healing. The three Trainers then decide to go their separate ways at a crossroads, and the film ends.
Major spoilers over, you're safe here.
As with the many Pokémon films of yesteryear, viewers received a few Pokémon goodies upon entering. First is an "official movie poster mag", containing kids' activities and Poké facts, with the mag turning into a sweet-looking reversible movie poster that shows Ash, Pikachu and the Ho-Oh. Second is an exclusive "Ash's Pikachu" Pokémon trading card, and the third is a QR code for a "special" and "distinctive" Pikachu that players can scan into their Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon games. It's basically very similar to the promotion that occurred over the last few months, with the Pikachu wearing a Trainer's hat (except this hat being the one worn by Ash in the film – yes, it's different to the classic one). Unlike the aforementioned promotion though, this can only be scanned into Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon and not any Pokémon 3DS game, which, although arguably unnecessary, is a neat promotional tie-in. It should be noted, however, that these goodies will apparently not be distributed in the aforementioned additional screenings on the 11th and 14th of November.
Additionally, the first three instalments of Pokémon Generations (an episodic YouTube series released by Pokémon last year) airs after the credits roll, which is a great experience for those who never got the chance to watch the shorts, although arguably lazy for those who waited for the credits to roll and were expecting a never-before-seen surprise.
Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You! contains all the ingredients you can expect from a typical Pokémon film – from gut-busting scenes to tear-jerking moments, and everything in between. Maybe that's a little bit of an exaggeration, but it does offer an experience that gets the audience feeling all kinds of different emotions – even if a little – from joy, to sorrow, to anger, to humour and, as much as I hate to admit it, downright cheese and cringe. The movie homes in on what the elder generation grew up with when watching the anime, but presents it with a fresh take. And while the focus is definitely on Generations I and II, it's nice to see Pokémon from all generations roaming the world of Kanto. The movie's animation is smooth and silky, illustrating its epic scenes in a way they deserve, and some of the iconic songs from the anime have received a catchy 2017 uplift that should prove to have both oldie and newbie watchers alike tapping their feet – or perhaps even flexing their vocal chords.
The movie could've been improved by focusing a little more on Verity and Sorrel's individual backstories, as well as, to me anyway, giving Team Rocket more of a platform to shine in the film. The ending for me is also probably the weakest part of the film, for it seems a little rushed, hard to make sense of, and also quite cringeworthy. Aside from these complaints, though, I Choose You does a great job of bringing Pokémon fans from all three decades of its existence together, containing references and Pokémon from the seven generations of games that have enthralled our lives at one point in time or another.
Let us know if you've seen the film so far, or if you hope to watch it in another screening or online in the future.