"But I'm sure glad I'm not stuck in it like you are!"—Ash Ketchum
Manically optimistic Pokémon champion Ash Ketchum and his irrelevant sidekicks Misty and Brock travel to a forest where they can learn about (that is, capture and exploit) new Pokémon. In search of the mysterious Celebi, Spirit of the Forest, they encounter young Sammy, catapulted forty years into his future by an encounter with a rogue Pokémon hunter. Together, they must protect Celebi from the evil Iron Mask Marauder and his evil army of Pokémon, in order to save the world from upstart commercial competitors like Yu-Gi-Oh.
Let's play "spot the movie." Once upon a time, a forest was guarded by the Spirit of the Forest and a magical equine with the power to heal, all centered around a lovely lake. After an encounter with an evil human, the Spirit of the Forest is transformed into a giant mindless monster that rampages through the forest, destroying everything in its path, while our erstwhile heroes try and talk it down.
Princess Mononoke? Nope. Pokémon 4Ever. That's right, if you are going to steal, at least steal from quality. But even at a seemingly endless 80 minutes, Pokémon 4Ever still has to throw in a time travel subplot and enough pointless slapstick, mostly involving the Team Rocket clowns (who serve no other function here than to break up the monotony with their antics) to pad out the running time.
Maybe I need to step back here. Obviously, Pokémon has an enormous, if diminishing fan base, in both Japan and the United States. Hardcore fans of the franchises likely have not read up to this point in the review, already deciding that I "don't get it." I think I have demonstrated enough here at DVD Verdict that I understand both anime and children's popular culture, so I need say no more on that count. And no, I have never been much of a fan of Pokémon. But I approached this movie with interest: buzz had it that this was an improvement in the series, a solid story from a franchise that could get away with a little more depth this time around because it too had nothing to prove.
And let us give Pokémon 4Ever some credit: it is not altogether terrible. While a bit padded, the story holds together without too many leaps in logic. The theme here, not surprisingly, is that Pokémon poaching is bad and an affront to Nature. After all, Ash asks nicely before exploiting these creatures for sport; evil people just steal them and force the Pokémon to obey them. I suppose the ambivalence on Pokémon toward the use of natural resources reflects the ambivalence of Japan itself, a nation in which resources are relatively scare, making conservation a tricky balancing act. There is never any question here that Pokémon should be merely left alone (an argument that might arise in a resource-rich country like the United States), but Ash and his pals must always be cautious in how they exploit the creatures.
Not that Pokémon 4Ever actually spends any of its running time making this point explicitly. Instead we get the Dastardly and Muttley antics of Team Rocket interspersed with fight scenes between our heroes and the Iron Mask Marauder. It all culminates in a big battle in which the villain transforms innocent Celebi into a giant monster that resembles the Night Walker (from Mononoke) if it were made of leftover Shredded Wheat. Did I mention that the CG in the film is second-rate stuff? Then, the denouement runs on for 20 more minutes. 20 very long minutes.
Of course, these 20 minutes did not seem nearly as long as the Pikachu cartoon that Miramax includes on the DVD. In "Pikachu's PikaBoo," Pikachu and his fellow creatures frolic at the beach. After about five minutes of this badly animated mess, I scraped my own eyes out with the free Suicune card that came with the disc. Fortunately (or not), the narrator and an inane pop song informed me that the rest of the cartoon takes place in a garden and consists of a hide and seek game, followed by a battle with a killer lawnmower.
Miramax also includes a trivia game, four very short animation progressions (use the angle button to switch among levels from layout to final shot), and American and Japanese trailers, including one for the next Pokémon movie, which apparently takes place in Venice, or judging from the usual names in the show, someplace like "Canal Town." But the real treat is—surprise—an actual commentary track. American executive producer Norman Grossfeld interviews the writer, director, and main voice cast members of the U.S. production team. Targeting kids, they keep it all pretty clear and simple, but they do discuss quite candidly how much they altered the original Japanese story for American audiences (even getting the original animators to insert new footage to clarify the ending). They have a good time, but they seem to take the movie's plot a bit too seriously, spending way too much time trying to sort out the temporal paradox of Sammy's trip, which is actually rather underdeveloped in the film itself (suggesting the Japanese writers did not think it very important). And strangely, the commentary only runs about 50 minutes, leaving you to watch the overlong ending again without any distraction.
The alterations do bring up a disturbing point about Miramax's packaging of this film. Although Pokémon 4Ever includes a 5.1 audio track—apparently so you can enjoy the immersive feel of hundreds of Pokémon repeating their names like children with ADD running up and down the aisles of a Toys R Us—the print is full frame. The Japanese trailer suggests that this film was released originally in widescreen (silly me, but I managed to miss it at the last anime convention I attended and in American theaters, so I cannot confirm this). And there is no effort made to include any of the original Japanese soundtrack, even with all the discussion about it during the commentary.
Even fans of the Pokémon franchise may find Pokémon 4Ever a little tired. The main villain feels underdeveloped, the time travel conceit goes nowhere, and the animation only seems half a step up from the television show. For those on the fence, the best you can say about Pokémon 4Ever is that it graduates the franchise from insufferable to insipid. That is not much of an improvement though, and it probably comes too late to breathe life into a series that is already in its death throes, supplanted by other crass attempts to make you purchase "collectables" that your children will throw out when they hit puberty.
As for this DVD, Miramax has provided a decidedly mixed bag of extras. Again, serious fans might be disappointed at the middling effort made here (for instance, only 2/3 of a commentary track) and the fact that the film is only available in full frame.
The court declares that you don't gotta catch 'em all, after all. Ash and company are sent home to their parents. Miramax is sentenced to imprisonment in a house of Pokémon cards. Court is adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Norman Grossfeld, Michael Haigney, Jim Malone and Voice Cast
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