Less than two years have passed since the release of “Pokémon: The First Movie”, and already hitting screens is the third big screen installment of the kiddie TV franchise. In some respects, this is a good thing: with Warner Bros. obviously rushing to strike while the iron is still lukewarm, “Pokémon 3: The Movie” is likely to be the final hurrah for this fading fad; and this third two-films-in-one package is without question the best of the series. But it’s all too little, too late for the phenomenon to gain a second wind, or for it to make converts out of any “Pokémon” haters.
As with the other two films, things get rolling with a solo short for the most popular Pokémon, the electric shock-powered Pikachu, called “Pikachu: The Movie 2001–Pikachu and Pichu.” Picking up on the advancement presented in “Pokémon: The Movie 2000″‘s accompanying “mini-movie” “Pikachu’s Rescue Adventure,” “Pikachu and Pichu” attempts to tell some kind of story as the ever-cute Pikachu and the equally adorable Pichu brothers get lost in the big city and get into all sorts of trouble. Not only is the slight story here more engaging than that in “Rescue Adventure” (or, for that matter, the nonexistent story in “Pikachu’s Vacation,” which preceded “The First Movie”), this short wisely employs a voiceover narration to clarify the action–quite welcome when all the main characters can say are their names. Of course, only the wee ones will fully understand all that goes on, not to mention know who the characters outside of Pikachu and the Pichu brothers are, but for older viewers, “Pikachu and Pichu,” while not exactly compelling, is at least somewhat watchable.
In its journey from Japan to the States, the “Pokémon” series has undergone some degree of sanitizing; reportedly, the original television series and movies are a bit darker in tone. While this was hinted at in the opening moments in “The First Movie–Mewtwo Strikes Back,” “Spell of the Unown,” “Pokémon 3″‘s main feature, has an intriguing air of melancholy hanging over its entire run time. Ash Ketchum, trainer of Pikachu and other Pokémon, is still the hero here, but the more or less central character in the film is Molly Hale, young daughter to Pokémon researcher Spencer Hale. Molly, whose mother had disappeared years before, loses her father in a similarly mysterious fashion as the film opens. The now-completely abandoned Molly’s grief and loneliness attracts the Unown, a mysterious alphabet-like Pokémon, who turn her home into an isolated crystal fortress in which all her wishes are made reality–including a new father in the form of a legendary Pokémon called Entei, who kidnaps Ash’s mother Delia and “gives” her to Molly.
It’s all unusually weighty stuff for this franchise, but lest we forget the reason why kids really want to see this film, there’s plenty of the series’ bread and butter: Pokémon battles. Of the three films, this one weaves this staple of the TV show into the fabric of the main story the most effectively; as Ash and friends Brock and Misty attempt to penetrate Molly’s fantasy prison and free both her and Delia, it’s only natural that there be various conflicts that have to be settled with a good ol’ pocket monster tussle. The tots won’t be disappointed.
Adults, on the other hand, will be disappointed with how the Molly story ultimately plays out. Her sad story is handled with a fair amount of sensitivity during the course of the film (rather touching is how Delia grows genuinely fond and protective of her “daughter”), but–and I am not giving away anything surprising here–Molly’s incredibly sunny disposition after Ash and company bring her back down to reality doesn’t quite sit right; there’s not one lingering trace of sadness. Perhaps it’s asking too much from a “Pokémon” film to expect emotional authenticity, but when it has as its focus as complex an idea (especially for this type of movie) as a new orphan withdrawing from reality as a coping mechanism, it best offer some thought-out follow-through. Granted, the choice of issue and its resolution are not as disastrously wrongheaded as in “The First Movie” (a most hypocritical anti-Pokémon-violence message–that was quickly tossed aside when all the characters’ memories were erased at the film’s close), but why have such ambitions only to shortchange them in the end?
But I’m overanalyzing–the bottom line is that “Pokémon 3: The Movie” is strictly for whatever pre- and elementary-school-age fans still remain, and parents who have been around for the long haul of this series will find themselves slightly more interested this time. So unless you are a “Pokémon” fan or have sired one… why did you read this review?