MOVIE REVIEW: “Pokemon: I Choose You” (2017)

This is a gorgeous movie. I really wish I’d been able to see it on the big screen.

Much to my surprise, that actually was an option. They hadn’t released a Pokemon movie theatrically in the US sine 2001, which was, like sixteen movies ago. Turns out that since this is the twentieth anniversary film in the franchise (And the twentieth film total – yikes!), it went into limited release, whereas the others have always been dumped on Cartoon Network or DVD or wherever. Believe it or not, it actually played in my dinky-assed market (Tampa) but only for two days, and in a really bad neighborhood (University Square Mall) which I just kinda didn’t want to chance after dark. I’m uneasy in that place during the day. There’s only like 6 or 7 stores still open, and it’s mostly gangs and pushers and hookers wandering around. Which is a shame because they blew a lot of money building that new food court.

But I digress…

Pokemon movies are always much better looking than you’d expect. Yeah, they’re generally disappointing, and the stories are frequently meh and the scripts don’t really feel fully-cooked, presumably because they’re cranking out one of these a year. Even so, they’re way, way better animated than the shows, and the shorts before the film are adorable, so even if it’s a terrible flick you can just zone out and enjoy it for how pretty it is. Except for “Genesect and the Legend Awakened.” That one sucked.

But I’m not digressing this time: This movie is absolutely far-and-away the most gorgeous Pokemon film ever. It’s nearly Studio Ghibli quality in some parts. They really pulled out all the stops for this one as part of the “Wow, can you believe it’s been two decades and we’re still going strong?” celebration.

Of course even coming up with a concept for a movie like this is difficult. What can you give the fans that they haven’t already seen a dozen times before? You can’t just dump another “Jirachi The Wishmaker,” on them. They need something new and different. At the same time, it needs to be a celebration of the past of the franchise. What do you do? What do you do?

The solution was pretty brilliant: Do an alternate-world version of the start of Ash’s adventures. I admit I thought this was pretty dodgy when I first heard of it, but, yeah, it really was clever.

The first 10 minutes are basically a remake of the first episode of the entire series in compressed form. Ash gets Pikachu, who doesn’t like him, they head off on their Pokemon Journey. They get in trouble, Ash risks his life and gets injured saving Pikachu, and they’re best friends from then on. At the end of the episode they see Ho-Oh, one of the legendary Pokemon. There’s no real significance to this, it’s just an omen of a bright future for him. In the next episode he meets his companion Misty, and an episode after that he meets Brock, and that’s your basic lineup for the next six years.

In this version of things, Ho-Oh happens to drop a feather while flying overhead. Ash catches it, and as a result he goes off on a different course. He turns left instead of right, basically. As a result he never meets Misty or Brock, and he’s on his own a lot longer. This results in him being less successful as a trainer, but more self-reliant than we’re used to seeing him. We see all this mostly in montage, but eventually he meets up with two never-before-heard-of companions: A girl named Verity and Sorrel, a wiser, more intellectually curious trainer.

They quickly recognize the importance of the feather, and the three of them spend the rest of the movie on a side-quest, finding their way to Ho-Oh, rescuing Charmander from an abusive trainer, and having repeated run-ins with the trainer, who’s the closest thing this movie has to a big bad.

Eventually they meet Ho-Oh in the climax, the bad guy is defeated and is somewhat repentant, Ash and his new pals go their separate ways, “And the journey continues.”

What makes this brilliant? Well, we do get to see Classic Ash again (And Pikachu is even somewhat redesigned to look midway between his current appearance and the older “90s Chu” version. We get to revisit a bunch of stuff from the first year of the show and yet it all feels new because it’s fundamentally not retreading the same old ground.

It’s also interesting because the stakes aren’t so high. We’ve already seen Ash save the world 6 or 7 times in 20 films, and save cities at least as many. (Honestly, Ash seems chosen of the Pokegods to be their fixer) This time out nothing much is at risk, other than an evil ghost type trying to corrupt the feather which…will be bad for some reason I never quite understood. It’s a personal story. It looks in instead of out, and that’s really what they needed to do here.

The relationship between Pikachu and Ash is pretty heartwarming. They have always been close, of course, but here it’s more like father and child or big brother and little brother. We see a lot of scenes of them just playing, and there’s no other way to say it, it’s just cute as hell. We also find out the reason for the twenty-year mystery as to why Pikachu refuses to go into his pokeball. A lot of people have complained about that scene, and the answer honestly doesn’t entirely make sense, but if it doesn’t make you tear up a little bit, then you just don’t have a heart. Pikachu’s reaction when Ash dies is also pretty gut-wrenching, though undercut a bit because we know he won’t stay dead. (Ash is very death-prone, but he always resurrects. Again: Chosen of the pokegods)

The B-story about Charmander and his evil trainer is good, too. The first scene is Ash walking along in the woods in the rain. He sees a Charmander sitting on a rock, looking like an abandoned baby, which, of course he is. This is a near-recreation of the same sequence from the show, but in THIS version, when Charmander’s master comes out of the woods, Charmander jumps up and runs towards him with his arms outstretched like a scared toddler (Which he is) and hugs his leg, and the trainer just kicks him away. Again, if this doesn’t put a lump in your throat then you’re probably just not a good person.

There’s also some trippy sequences like the one where Ash hallucinates our world, the real world, and doesn’t even remember Pokemon exist.

Reviews for this movie have not been very good. That’s fair. I’ll be honest: Some of this stuff lands and some of it doesn’t. I get why they did what they did. They took some chances. The story lacks urgency given the absence of a threat, which probably put some people off. The character of Verity doesn’t make much of an impression. Sorrell is a little on the bland side, but a really harrowing flashback to him as a kid more than makes up for that (Again: Lump-in-the-throat time. If it doesn’t affect you, you should probably seek counseling). There’s no real reason for Team Rocket to keep showing up. I get them turning up in a cameo or something, but their repeated appearances through the film add nothing and simply aren’t funny.  Ash’s brief time in the world of the dead is cool looking (And eerily similar to his pokemon-free dream sequence earlier on), but it lacks payoff. It feels like he should have done something there, something that he wasn’t able to do when alive, though I have no idea what that might be. And, yes, they didn’t explore the alternate timeline as thoroughly as they could have.

Just the same…this whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It took a big chance, unlike the others, and is flat-out gorgeous, and is the only Pokemovie that ever raised any real emotions in me. Strongly reccomended.

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