Upon the release of Pokémon: Blue Version and Pokémon: Red Version (Game Freak, 1996), a new craze swept through playgrounds across the world. An entire generation grew up either playing Pokémon, watching the anime, playing the trading card game, or watching the feature-length movies as clever marketing and a co-ordinated release and multimedia strategy saw Nintendo’s newest franchise become not just a successful videogame franchise but a massively lucrative and popular multimedia powerhouse that endures to this day. Accordingly, February 27th is now internationally recognised as “National Pokémon Day” for fans of the long-running and beloved franchise to come together in celebration of all things Pokémon.
Released: 17 July 1999
Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
Budget: $30 million
Stars: Veronica Taylor, Neil Stewart, Rachael Lillis, Ted Lewis, Amy Birnbaum, Eric Stuart, Ikue Ōtani, Maddie Blaustein, and Eric Rath
In the Orange Islands of the Kanto region, a cold-hearted collector (Stewart) sets in motion his plan to capture the Legendary Pokémon Articuno (Yumi Tōma), Zapdos (Katsuyuki Konishi), and Moltres (Rikako Aikawa) in order to upset the natural balance and bring forth Lugia (Rath), guardian of the sea. When Ash Ketchum (Taylor) and his friends stumble upon the collector’s plot, they face a race against time to quell the battle between the Legendary Birds and keep the world from being destroyed by a tumultuous storm caused by their conflict.
Pokémon (Nintendo/Creatures/Game Freak, 1995 to present) was more than just a craze when it came over from Japan: it was a phenomenon that swept through playgrounds as kids played the videogames, battling and trading with one another, collected the trading cards, bought all the magazines and such, and were mesmerised by the still-ongoing anime series (1997 to present). To say that expectations were high for the aptly-titled Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (Yuyama, 1998) was putting it mildly; the film was not only a box office success but also enticed Poké-fans with glimpses of some completely new Pokémon!
Production of a second Pokémon movie took place during a transitional phase for the anime and the Pokémon videogames; having finished up his adventures in Kanto, Ash was travelling the Orange Islands while the developers worked on my favourite games in the series, Pokémon: Gold Version and Silver Version (Game Freak, 1999). Pokémon the Movie 2000 (or “Pocket Monsters the Movie: The Phantom Pokémon: Lugia’s Explosive Birth”) was largely marketed around a brand new Legendary Pokémon, Lugia, who was the creation of Takeshi Shudo; Shudo was surprised not only when Lugia was incorporated into the games and anime but also when it was characterised as a male considering he regarded it as a more maternal Pokémon. Although the film made over $130 million at the box office, the critical reception was mixed to negative for the most part. Still, for me and many other Poké-fans at the time, Pokémon the Movie 2000 proved to be excellent promotion for the upcoming videogames and arguably was the first hint towards just how massive the franchise was set to become.
Pokémon the Movie 2000 opens by immediately introducing us to a central aspect of its plot, a prophecy that warns against disturbing the harmony of fire, ice, and lightning and foretelling the coming of a “Chosen One” to help quell the “beast of the sea”. This little rhyme emphasises that, although the “guardian” of the sea will arise should these elemental forces be pushed out of balance, “alone its song will fail and thus the world shall turn to ash”. Obviously, this has been slightly altered from the original Japanese version which, as I understand it, was slightly vaguer in its details and basically said that anyone could be the Chosen One if they were able to reunite the treasures found on islands near Samouti Island in the Orange Islands (that’s a lot of islands…) However, in the dub, it’s made ridiculously explicit that “ash” has a double meaning, which is kinda fun but I guess your enjoyment of this aspect will depend on how much of a fan of Ash you are.
Naturally, Ash, Misty (Lillis), and Tracy Sketchit (Lewis) are currently travelling around the Orange Islands and, thanks to their current guide, Maren (Tara Jane), they soon learn all about the same prophecy and the legend of the treasures from the natives of Shamouti Island. While Melody (Birnbaum) stresses that its just a simple legend that they observe for fun and frivolities, Ash takes to his duties as the “Chosen One” with vigorous enthusiasm and the gang notice that all of the Pokémon in the area, including Pikachu (Ōtani), are acting strangely. Sensing the tumultuous changes in the weather, which causes sudden rain and snowstorms, Pokémon flock to Shamouti Island in droves since they feel that the natural balance of the ecosystem is in turmoil. Melody is largely dismissive of the island’s rituals and customs, believing them to be outdated and boring, much to the chagrin of her older sister, Carol (Michelle Goguen); despite her frivolous and snarky attitude, though, Melody still takes part in the ritual, which calls for her to dance about in a pretty dress and play the “Guardian’s Song” on conch-like ocarina. When the natives peg Ash as being the Chosen One simply because he happens to be a young Pokémon trainer, Melody immediately finds a more interesting reason to play her role as she takes an instant liking to Ash, much to Misty’s annoyance. This adds an interesting wrinkle to the film and the main characters as Melody constantly winds Misty up by flirting with Ash. Clearly jealous of Melody, Misty acts all passive-aggressive at the suggestion that she is Ash’s girlfriend and, unlike in the last film where she (and basically everyone else) just stood around doing nothing, this at least gives her a small arc where she realises that she’d do anything to help out her friend.
Of course, the main characters are pursued by Jesse (Lillis), James (Stuart), and Meowth (Blaustein) of Team Rocket; still determined to get their hands on Pikachu, Team Rocket soon find that they’ve once again bitten of more than they can chew as they are buffeted around by the rampaging storm and constantly bombarded by the Legendary Birds’ attacks. When they realise that the fate of the very world is at stake, though, they decide to join forces with Ash and his friends to help gather the treasures (since they wouldn’t be able to profit if the world is destroyed). This isn’t the first or the last time Team Rocket would team up with their enemies but they actually throw themselves into this heroic role with a surprising amount of gusto; not only do they help free Moltres and Zapdos from captivity, they also help Ash reach Ice Island and are basically prepared to die in order to see him succeed.
Their role as main antagonist is usurped by a cold-hearted, arrogant philanthropist (retroactively revealed to be called Lawrence III but here simply referred to as a “Collector” of rare Pokémon) who has spent his entire life obsessed with rare Pokémon, Legendary Pokémon, and studying the legend of the “Beast of the Sea”. His efforts lead him to attack the Shamouti Islands, employing tactics very similar to games of chess where he fire elemental blasts at each of the Legendary Birds and ensnares them in special electrical bands with, it has to be said, a ridiculous amount of ease. The Collector has seemingly no concern about the ramifications of his actions; he doesn’t care how capturing one Legendary Bird upsets the balance between the three and causes the Pokémon to run wild or that a raging storm brews under the sea that threatens the world. All he cares about it forcing Lugia to the surface so he can capture it for his vast collection (which is ironic as we never actually see his vaulted collection) and, even when the Legendary Pokémon are engaged in all-out war, he continues to pursue this goal and, as a result, finds his floating palace in ruins from Lugia’s desperate counterattack. While he is left defeated, the Collector ends the film free and resolves to begin his quest all over again, which I always found to be a poor ending as he really deserved to face greater consequences for his selfish and destructive actions.
However, while the Collector may be positioned as the film’s main threat, it’s actually the warring Legendary Birds who are the primary menace for Ash and his friends. Hugely territorial, the birds generally prefer to keep to themselves on their respective islands but, when Moltres is captured, Zapdos immediately overtakes Fire Island and expands its territory. It refuses to listen to reason and doesn’t seem to care about the effect this has on the environment; it just wants to lord over more land and, when the three birds are unleashed, they engage in all-out war against each other. The effect this had is destructive and immediate but also causes a greater threat to emerge beneath the ocean, where the true “Beast of the Sea” rages; this swirling mass of energy causes catastrophic weather changes across the world and threatens the safety of everyone.
With the Legendary Birds raging out of control, Lugia finally arises to put an end to their conflict; like Mewtwo (Philip Bartlett), Lugia is fully capable of communicating with the human characters using is psychic abilities and, from it, they learn that they must bring all three treasures to a shrine and they play the Guardian’s Song in order to calm the warring trio down. While Lugia is extremely powerful, the numbers game overwhelm it constantly and its strength is directly tied to the success of the Chosen One; as a result, while it does everything it can to subdue the trio with brute force, it isn’t until Ash is able to fulfil his destiny that its powers are finally able to quell Articuno, Zapdos, and Moltres and thus dissipate the environmental catastrophe that threatens the entire world.
As in the last film, Pokémon the Movie 2000 merges traditional 2D anime with some CGI effects; however, as much as I enjoy this movie for its depictions of the Legendary Birds and the emphasis it places on Lugia, I always found the rendition of the four birds to be somewhat lacking compared to the likes of Mewtwo or other Legendary Pokémon. The animation is good, and of a higher standard than a regular episode of the anime, but it just doesn’t seem to look or feel as big as the last film despite having more action and higher stakes. Like the first film, there’s also a bit of computer-generation animation employed here, primarily in the Collector’s ship, the rendition of the underwater tumult, and some of the birds’ attacks; it seems to have been implemented much better compared to the last film but I wonder if a bit of CGI enhancement would have helped the birds to stand out a bit more.
While the use of rampant storms, wind, and rain is extremely similar to the aesthetic of the last movie, here it is a far bigger threat as we see the effect the trio’s battle has on Ash’s hometown and regularly cut away to a sub-plot involving Professor Samuel Oak (Stuart Zagnit) and Ash’s mother, Delia (Taylor), as they experience the severe phenomena, advise new reporters on what’s happening and theorise as to why, and even travel to the elemental islands to help out as best they can. There’s a clear and obvious environmental message in the film that warns about the dangers of interfering with or upsetting the natural order of things; while this can have severe ramifications for us in the real world, those in the Pokémon world are even more at risk as captured or provoking certain Pokémon can encourage or awake even more powerful and destructive creatures. One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Pokémon the Move 2000 is its use of humour and jokes; there were some puns and gags in the first film but there’s loads of amusing little moments here, like when Misty and Melody are arguing about Ash and Tracey thinks they’re talking about him or a simple shot to Slowking (Nathan Price) when its sat in and covered by snow and it simply states, completely deadpan: “I could use pants”. These moments of levity really help to break up the film’s overall dark and bleak tone; the first movie was pretty dark in its implications and stakes but the second one escalates thing even further as the conflict between the Legendary Birds threatens to destroy the entire world and Ash is given the explicit role as the saviour of the planet rather than simply lucking into being a hero like usual.
Another area where Pokémon the Movie 2000 also excels is in its action sequences; as awesome as it was to see Mewtwo finally battle with Mew (Kōichi Yamadera), all they did was basically just bash into each other a bit while the other Pokémon slapped each other about and it did somewhat underdeliver in its fight scenes. That doesn’t happen here; Articuno, Moltres, and Zapdos attack each other without mercy and with rampant aggression that threatens everyone and everything. Sadly, for a big Articuno fan like me, the Ice-type bird gets the short end of the stick a bit as it gets battered about by its counterparts but the film is a fantastic debut for Lugia, another of my all-time favourite Pokémon. While I would have preferred to see Lugia and its counterpart, Ho-Oh, share the screen (and it’s still weird to me that this never happened, as far as I know), Lugia is an enigmatic Pokémon in its own right and more than capable of battling against all three Legendary Birds for a time. While, like Mewtwo, Lugia’s powers are vast and formidable, its not an overpowered creature; it can calm the warring trio only when all three treasures are returned to the shrine and the song is played and it even seems to die a couple of times as it is overwhelmed by the Legendary Birds. A wise and enigmatic figure, Lugia is only as strong as the Chosen One to whom it is bonded, meaning that its success in battle hinges on Ash’s ability to live up to the lofty expectations of the prophecy (and his name). Of course, he succeeds in this endeavour (and without being turned to stone this time…) but it’s pretty touch and go for a while as he is relentlessly hounded by Moltres, Zapdos, and Articuno and is only able to succeed with help from friend and foe alike.
Since Pokémon Gold and Silver have always been my favourite Pokémon videogames, and my love of Pokémon was at its peak around this time, I’ve always had a soft spot for Pokémon the Movie 2000. It didn’t quite have the same epic feel as the first movie, mainly because the anime didn’t build towards the conflict or sow the seeds for the feature this time around and it would be difficult for any Pokémon film to match the mystery Mew elicited in young Pokémon fans at the time, but it was still a pretty impressive follow-up in its own right. With bigger, and more impressive action, a surprisingly emotional score and subtext, and debuting one of my all-time favourite Pokémon, the film is a decent entry and easily in my top three-to-five of all the Pokémon movies. Oddly, though, I don’t have quite the same level of nostalgia for this one compared to the first one and, in some ways, it might be a little more run-of-the-mill compared to the first movie but it’s got a lot going for it and, while I’m not much of a fan of Ash, it handled him being the “Chosen One” in a fairly amusing way. For me, it’s all about the battles between the Legendary Birds; while I’m still disappointed we never got to see Ho-Oh involved in the conflict, it was great seeing Moltres, Articuno, and Zapdos going at it in a furious squabble over territory that threatened the entire planet and tying Lugia’s strength in with Ash’s courage helped to keep the tension, and the stakes, pretty high as they were constantly battling the odds the entire time so I’d say it’s definitely one not to underestimate for how engaging it can be in its own right.
Are you a fan of Pokémon the Movie 2000? If so, what did you like about it; if not, how do you think it could have been better? Did you like the depiction of the Legendary Birds or would you have preferred to see them portrayed in a way that was closer to the source material? What did you think to the Collector as the main antagonist and the depiction (and debut) or Lugia? Which Pokémon game, generation, and creature is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating National Pokémon Day today? Whatever your thoughts, drop them in the comments below.