According to Pokémon: Blue and Red Version (Nintendo/Creatures/Game Freak, 1995), February 6 is the day that Mew successfully gave birth to my favourite Pokémon, Mewtwo. Whether this was a natural birth or simply the day the clone was successfully created is up for debate but, nevertheless, this is the official date that the world’s most powerful Pokémon came into being. Happy birthday, Mewtwo; please don’t kill me!
Released: July 1998
Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
Budget: $5 million
Stars: Veronica Taylor, Philip Bartlett, Rachael Lillis, Eric Stuart, Madeleine Blaustein, Ikue Ohtani, and Kouichi Yamadera
Cloned from the genetic material of the rarest Pokémon of all, Mew (Yamadera), and enraged at its mistreatment at the hands of humans, the Psychic Pokémon Mewtwo (Bartlett) lures Ash Ketchum (Taylor) and his friends to its island to witness its plan to enact revenge against all humanity.
So, by now, you’re well aware of Pokémon (Nintendo/Creatures/Game Freak, 1995 to present), a role-playing videogame in which you capture, raise, and battle little monsters and which dominated playgrounds and friendships in the late nineties. After rushing out to purchase Pokémon: Blue Version or Pokémon: Red Version, kids soon became engrossed in every piece of Pokémon merchandise there was, and that included the still-ongoing Pokémon (1997 to present) anime series. Though somewhat removed from its videogame source material, the anime was popular enough to warrant the release of a feature-length animated movie that revolved around one of the most powerful and popular Pokémon, Mewtwo, and its ever-elusive biological counterpart, Mew.
Mewtwo represented the ultimate challenge in the original videogames; capturing it meant you had easily the strongest Pokémon the game had to offer and the creature was seemingly tailor-made for the game’s Master Ball, which captured any Pokémon without fail. In comparison, Mew wasn’t actually available in the original videogames outside of Japan, resulting in a slew of wild theories on how to capture it and kids either breaking their games with glitches or buying a Game Genie to get their hands on the mysterious little critter. For me, Pokémon: The First Movie has never been matched by other Pokémon movies in terms of its spectacle and hype. This was peak Pokémon, when the games and anime were at their most popular for my generation (matched only by the release of the follow-up titles), and the appeal of Mewtwo and mystery surrounding Mew was at the forefront of my mind and the minds of my friends and peers. Best of all, hints and glimpses of Mewtwo had been peppered throughout the anime: Giovanni (Ted Lewis) had used it in a battle against Ash’s rival, Gary Oak (James Carter Cathcart), and we’d seen it escape from Giovanni’s headquarters in explosive fashion. Never again would the anime so explicitly tie into one of the movies and the hype for Pokémon: The First Movie was palpable as a result.
Pokémon: The First Movie opens with Mewtwo questioning its memories, its identity, and the reason for its creation. These issues haunt Mewtwo throughout the film and are the reason for its rage against, and hatred of, humanity; cloned from a single cell of the mythical Pokémon Mew, Mewtwo is tormented by visions from a life it doesn’t remember and feelings it can’t reconcile.
Add to that its “awesome Psychic powers” and Mewtwo doesn’t waste any time in breaking out of its containment tube and demanding answers from the Team Rocket scientists that created it. Incensed at the their lack of care for its feeling or condition, Mewtwo flies into a rage, destroying the lab and killing everyone within. This opening sequence effectively sets the tone for what is to follow; although the film is rated U for everybody, it’s a far darker and more sombre affair than the usually fun-loving anime series thanks, largely, to the changes made to Mewtwo’s motivations by producer Norman Grossfeld. This involved cutting an entire opening sequence which made Mewtwo a far more sympathetic figure and changing the Pokémon from a more ambiguous and tragic figure and into one that is clearly evil and motivated by anger. However, this doesn’t make it any less a tragic figure; Mewtwo suffers nothing but abuse and betrayal in its short life and its outrage is completely understandable.
Determined to take revenge against the human world, Mewtwo organises a Pokémon tournament on its island; after winning a Pokémon battle against a random trainer (in unbelievable fashion), Ash, Brock (Stuart), and Misty (Lillis) are invited to attend but soon find themselves opposed by a sudden storm. This world-covering tempest is actually a result of Mewtwo; in the dub, Mewtwo causes a storm that threatens all life on Earth rather than to simply cloak its island and, while debating how to brave the storm, Ash and his friends hear a story that is also exclusive to the dub. They are told of a time long ago when a storm wiped out countless lives; so heartbroken by the devastation, the surviving Pokémon’s tears “somehow restored the lives lost in the storm”. Though it obviously has many holes, this ridiculous premise actually works to help justify what happens at the end of the film and simplifies the film’s events for the younger viewers that made up the majority of its audience. Regardless, Ash and his friends manage to reach Mewtwo’s island thanks not only to their Pokémon (despite them being described as being “too weak” to brave the storm) and, partially, to assistance from their long-time enemies from Team Rocket, Jessie (Lillis), James (Stuart), and Meowth (Blaustein), all of whom largely fulfil their usual roles as comic relief.
Once they reach the island and encounter Mewtwo, Ash immediately opposes Mewtwo’s plot to wipe the planet clean of all life, human and Pokémon alike, and replace it with its genetically superior clone Pokémon. What follows is an inevitable conflict between the naturally born and trained Pokémon of the trainers present and Mewtwo’s clones and a debate about the merits of fighting and the difference between nature and nurture. Now, obviously, the dub makes these aspects so on the nose and in your face that you’d be hard-pressed to miss them; the characters literally have an entire conversation in the middle of a no holds barred fight between the clones and the originals where they simply repeat “fighting is wrong” over and over. As a kid, this was a frustrating experience as those who didn’t understand Pokémon or who thought it was stupid would criticise this moment as all Pokémon ever seem to do is fight but I would argue that there is a clear difference in the games, anime, and in this movie and its subsequent sequels between battling for sport and in the name of friendly competition and fighting to the death.
No one exemplifies the refusal to take part in such a pointless fight more than Pikachu (Ohtani); seeing it pointedly refuse to fight its clone and getting smacked around as a result was utterly heartbreaking but it serves to drive the point home extremely well. Even Team Rocket come to realise the pointlessness of such conflict, with Meowth also refusing to fight its clone and musing that individuals have more in common than they might think. Of course, all this surprising character growth and development is then rendered completely mute when Mewtwo wipes all of their memories, meaning that the only one who really learns a lesson is Mewtwo but, given that it was hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth, I guess that’s preferable.
Even after all this time, and despite some of its flaws, Pokémon: The First Movie is still a great film for me. Of all the Pokémon movies released, this, in my opinion, is still the best one; nostalgia obviously plays a large part in this but, while I enjoyed some of the later movies, none of them had quite the same appeal as this one. It introduced a few new Pokémon from the upcoming sequel games, showcased my favourite Pokémon (Mewtwo), and brought Mew into the spotlight for the first time. It’s telling that every single Pokémon movie that has followed has featured either a Psychic Pokémon or a Pokémon capable of speech/communicating and that they often have similar themes of an evil or misguided, stupidly powerful Pokémon having to be quelled. Pokémon: The First Movie did it first, and best, in my opinion, though.
I mentioned just now that the film has some flaws and, yeah, it would be ignorant not to address them. Compared to later movies in the series, Pokémon: The First Movie isn’t quite as crisp or as smoothly animated; indeed, the animation is clearly a step up from the regular anime but far from the gorgeously slick rendering of later films. While you could argue that the producers really didn’t need to replace certain aspects with computer-generated images (doors, some camera movements and effects and the like), I didn’t actually mind this; sure, it sticks out a bit but it’s harmless enough.
Of course, the changes made to the script, specifically Mewtwo’s origin and motivations, irked many people but it was never really an issue for me; sure, I’d like to see it either redubbed or subtitled in the original Japanese format but I grew up with the dubbed anime and this version of the movie. It’s all I’ve ever known and I’ve always been happy with it despite how unapologetically the script hammers home its obvious themes. It is a bit weird, though, how the script makes a few errors in identifying Pokémon; it makes an ironic sense that lifetime bunglers like Team Rocket would mistake Sandshrew for Sandslash (even though they look very different) but it is a bit odd that a trainer would misidentify his own Pokémon. Mistakes like these are surprising but hardly a deal-breaker; it smacks of laziness and a lack of quality control but hardly derails the movie.
Frankly, they could have screwed the names of all the Pokémon and I still would have been happy just to see the long-awaited fight between Mewtwo and Mew. Apparently evenly matched in terms of raw power, their fight disappointingly descends into them simply ramming into each other’s protective shields but it’s nonetheless quite brutal and exciting. It’s even quite surprising how vicious Mew is; it is portrayed the entire movie as this mischievous little pixie but, when push comes to shove, is more than happy to trade energy blasts with its monstrous counterpart and fight to prove its point.
This, of course, brings me to one of the most heartbreaking moments you could experience as a kid; Ash, desperate to stop the fighting, leaps between the two and is inexplicably turned to stone. The moment is shocking (even for me…and I’ve never been that big a fan of Ash) but quickly becomes absolutely heartwrenching when Pikachu, confused and in despair, tries to rouse its master with little pushes and shock after shock. The fighting stops; friend and foe alike gaze in disbelief as Pikachu fails to awaken Ash and bursts into tears of grief. It’s absolutely heartbreaking even now just seeing Pikachu in such a desperate state. Luckily, that “tears of life” story pays off and the collective tears of all the Pokémon restore Ash but I never expected the movie to have this sudden, abrupt turn into the feels and it still gets me to this day.
Pokémon: The First Movie was a rousing success, earning over $170 million at the box office and kick-starting a slew of movies to follow. The producers circled back around to Mewtwo a couple of times after this, first in the direct-to-DVD sequel, Pokémon: Mewtwo Returns (Sonoda, 2000), which answered a few lingering questions from this film, and then Mewtwo and Mew also appeared in Pokémon: The Mastermind of Mirage (Yuyama and Fujita, 2006). Mewtwo also featured in Pokémon the Movie: Genesect and the Legend Awakened (Yuyama, 2013), though that film inexplicably and quite ridiculously featured an entirely different Mewtwo, and Pokémon: The First Movie was remade entirely in CGI in 2019 around about in time for the first film’s twentieth anniversary and, of course, who else but Mewtwo would feature as the principal antagonist in Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (Letterman, 2019), a film that explicitly referenced Pokémon: The First Movie when discussing Mewtwo’s origins.
Never doubt the power of nostalgia; it can make even the crappiest polygonal graphics seem timeless and the most outlandish movies memorable. I still like Pokémon but I don’t really play the games anymore and am nowhere near as invested in the franchise as I was when Pokémon: The First Movie came out; I would scour magazines and comic books for glimpses of the film and the mysterious new Pokémon we knew nothing about and went out of my way to get a bootleg VHS of the movie just so I could watch it and see my favourite Pokémon in action. I admit that nostalgia plays a large part in my affection for Pokémon: The First Movie but it is still a really solid entry in the Pokémon movie series and a decent animated feature in its own right. It’s not as action-packed as the later entries and nowhere near as well animated or scripted but the hype was real and seeing Mewtwo and Mew go at it in this classic will never got old. It got me then and it still gets me now.
What did you think of Pokémon: The First Movie? Where does it rank for you compared to the other Pokémon films? Do you think it still holds up to this day or do you think it’s seen better days? How are you celebrating Mewtwo’s birthday this year? Whatever you think about Pokémon: The First Movie, Mewtwo, and Pokémon in general, leave your thoughts in the comments below