"Pokémon! Gotta catch em' all! It's you and me, I know it's my destiny! Pokémon! Oh, you're my best friend, in a world we must defend!"
You just heard the theme song as you read those words, right? That's the power of Pokémon! The series about cute creatures who are essentially raised and trained by children to battle in legal dogfights has been entertaining us for decades, but it's likely you might feel like you've outgrown the cute adventures of Ash Ketchum, Pikachu, and their numerous super cute friends. Well, you would be wrong. In fact, two of the best, most engaging entries to the Pokémon canon were made within the last five years and they're both streaming on Netflix right now.
In 2017, the Pokémon Company began to reimagine the series with a new animated movie called Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! Directed by Pokémon franchise icon Kunihiko Yuyama, the feature loosely adapts the story from the first ever episode of the original cartoon. The title of the film is also a reference to the pilot title, but where the 20th anniversary release could have been derivative and boring, it's instead a lovely light reboot that is perfect for new fans or old Pokémon diehards who want to revisit that old Saturday morning magic.
Channeling the childlike wonder of Studio Ghibli films like My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, we follow the joyful journey of Ash Ketchum (Rica Matsumoto) as he begins his quest to become a Pokémon trainer. We get to relive Ash's introduction to Pikachu before the pair head off a radical romp to search for the Legendary Pokémon Entei. It's a lovely but low stakes exploration of following your dreams and believing in yourself that's elevated by gorgeous animation that looks and feels like the perfect blend of the classic Pokémon style and modern animation technology.
Shinji Miyazaki's soaring score adds an epic cinematic feel even as you curl under a quilt and watch the beautifully animated adventures of Ash and his bpf (best Pokémon forever). But as enjoyable as Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! is, it's just the cute-creature-fight-feature appetizer in comparison to its far superior sequel, Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us. Released just one year later, The Power of Us shakes off the trappings of the original series storyline and introduces Ash to an emotionally driven environmental parable that takes the easy charm of the first movie and translates into something powerful and visually stunning.
Directed by Tetsuo Yajima, Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us feels tonally different to anything else we've seen in the franchise. Deeply character driven, this is a story about the wider world of Pokémon and the people who live within it. That's not to say there aren't plenty of Pokémon centric moments, but the heart of the power and the narrative of this film is the importance of the relationship between the animals and the humans who train them. Ash and Pikachu are obviously at the core of the story, but here we get to explore the wider ramifications of the symbiotic relationships that the Pokémon universe (and economy) is based on.
Each year in Fula City, trainers from near and far arrive to celebrate the founding of the city at the annual Wind Festival. The origin story of the serene city is tied to the Legendary Pokémon Lugia who saved the first humans in Fula City from a mountain fire they started while hunting for another Legendary Pokémon. And each year Lugia returns to bless the city with wind. But a growing divide between the wild Pokémon and the inhabitants of Fula City puts that tradition and the future of the metropolis at risk. While that may all sound very serious, The Power of Us continues the tone and spirit of I Choose You! with a quiet, relaxed, and joyful approach to the action that begins and ends with the friendships at its core.
Pokémon the Movie: The Power of Us weaves together multiple narrative threads focusing on different characters and their Pokémon. It's a smart way to establish the thematic importance of that relationship which is at the center of the conflict and message of the movie. Pokémon has long been plagued by questions about the moral and ethical quandaries of the world, and The Power of Us offers an interesting exploration of those topics. Though it's not exactly an excoriating ecological masterpiece like Princess Mononoke, it does feel like it draws on the Ghibli classic to make us question the impact that we have on the nature that surrounds us. It also offers a good and thoughtful--if brief--interrogation of how the world and business of Pokémon has damaged the creatures that it's built on.
So, if you're looking for a magical escape as the nights draw in, then make sure to visit these dazzling animated movies that you've probably never seen.
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