Talking Movies [PokéMonth]: Pokémon 3: The Movie: Spell of the Unown

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, and 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”, which I expanded to an entire month of Pokémon this February.

Released: 8 July 2000
Director: Kunihiko Yuyama
Distributor: Toho
Budget: $3 to 16 million
Stars: Veronica Taylor, Eric Stuart, Rachael Lillis, Amy Birnbaum, Dan Green, and Ikue Ōtani

The Plot:
Professor Spencer Hale (Green) is transported to a chaotic dimension by the mysterious Unown (Various), leaving his young daughter, Molly (Birnbaum), devastated and alone. Her grief causes the Unown’s power to rage out of control, manifesting an illusionary Entei (Green) and transforming her home into a crystal-like palace. When Entei kidnaps Ash Ketchum’s (Taylor) mother, Delia (ibid) to appease Molly’s wish for a mother, Ash and friends must brave the danger to break the Unown’s unruly spell.

The Background:
Pokémon (Nintendo/Creatures/Game Freak, 1995 to present) was an absolute phenomenon when it came over from Japan: it swept through playgrounds as kids played the videogames, collected the trading cards, and were mesmerised by the still-ongoing anime series (1997 to present). This fantastic marketing strategy was all it took for the aptly-titled Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back (Yuyama, 1998) to become a box office success and kick-started a whole series of feature films designed to expand upon the anime and promote both the newest Pokémon videogames and showcase the franchise’s most powerful and elusive beasts. Although it earned less than the blockbuster first movie, Pokémon the Movie 2000: The Power of One (Yuyama, 1999) still made over $130 million against a $30 million budget and Pokémon was arguably at its peak thanks to the anticipation around the newest games in the series. The third feature-film was afforded a much smaller budget than its predecessors and was the first Pokémon movie to premier in IMAX cinemas. Unfortunately, the film’s $68.5 million box office meant that it was the least successful of the first three Pokémon movies and it was met with largely negative critical reviews; however, it has amassed something of a cult following and is regarded by some to be one of the best Pokémon movies.

The Review:
Pokémon 3: The Movie opens in the beautiful town of Greenfield, a lush and verdant town in the Johto region that is knowing for is sweeping hills, windmills, and fields of flowers. It’s also home to the Spencer Hale and his daughter, Molly, who live in a luxurious mansion that overlooks the entire town. Every evening, Spencer reads to his inquisitive and loving young daughter from a picture book that imagines what some Legendary Pokémon look like; although she’s particularly taken with Entei, she also highlights the mysterious Unown, a group of interdimensional, Psychic-type Pokémon who have long been the subject of Spencer’s extensive research. However, while Spencer and Molly have a very close, loving relationship, it’s clear that there’s a void in the lives and their household due to the disappearance of the Spencer matriarch, who mysteriously vanished one day while helping Spencer with his research, leaving Molly without a mother and Spencer to carry the burden of guilt.

Molly is devastated when her father disappears, and overjoyed when he “returns” as Entei.

Spencer has doubled down on his research; aided by his assistant, Schuyler (Ted Lewis), Spencer has been conducting an in-depth investigation into a site of ruins where the stone walls are covered in carvings that resemble the Unown. Unfortunately, after discovering a chest full of small stone tablets engraved with the different alphabetical shapes of the Unown, Spencer is also whisked away to the cosmic void of the Unown Dimension, a swirling place of mystery while the Unown constantly rotate around and sing their names. Schuyler is left dumbfounded at Spencer’s sudden disappearance, and Molly is left absolutely heart-broken and alone; with both of her parents gone, she’s left only with the Unown puzzle pieces and the heartfelt wish to have her father returned to her. Her tearful plea summons the Unown and, while she is delighted that they’ve come to “play with [her]”, their true intention is slightly more malicious as they apparently feed off of her grief-stricken wishes in order to become stronger. Fuelled by her dreams of a crystalline home, the Unown transform the mansion a piece at a time until it represents pictures from Spencer’s book, and their power is so great that they’re able to answer her desire for the return of her father by conjuring an illusion of Entei, whom Molly believes is her father’s spirit returned to her.

Ash risks everything to rescue his mother, who is captured and brainwashed to be Molly’s “Mama”.

Quite coincidentally, Ash, Pikachu (Ōtani), and former gym leaders Misty (Lillis) and Brock (Stuart) just happen to be passing by and run across a trainer native to the area, Lisa (Lisa Ortiz). After Brock strikes out with her (with one of the film’s most amusing lines, “I’m Brock, from Pewter City! And I want to be your boyfriend!”) and Ash is able to beat her in a surprisingly evenly matched Pokémon battle during the film’s opening credits, Lisa guides them to Greenfield so that they can rest up at the Pokémon Center and take in the town’s much-lauded beauty. Suffice it to say that Ash is unimpressed, and the group is horrified, to find that the once stunning landscape has been almost completely overtaken with the Unown’s bizarre crystalline wasteland. Even perennial bothers Jessie (Lillis), James (Stuart), and wise-cracking Meowth (Maddie Blaustein) of Team Rocket are stunned to find Greenfield in such a state, and it’s not long before a news crew (Kathy Pilon and Roger Kay) arrive to try and restore order and report on the strange events. Back in Pallet Town, Delia Ketchum, Ash’s mother, sees the news report and is distraught at the continued suffering of her old friend, Spencer Hale, and she and Professor Samuel Oak (Stuart Zagnit) resolve to travel to Greenfield to get to the bottom of the what’s happening, and to check on Molly. While others are alarmed by the startling transformation of Greenfield, Molly revels in her crystal palace; she delights in playing with her “Papa” and seeing her wishes literally spring to life before her eyes, but her longing for her mother remains. Seeing Delia on the news broadcast reminds her not only of her own mother, but also of the times when Delia and Ash would visit her and her family in years past, and she wishes for Entei to bring her a “Mama” to complete their little family. This adds an interesting personal wrinkle to the film’s plot that has been absent from the previous two films as Entei boldly introduces itself to our heroes by subduing and kidnapping Delia right before Ash’s eyes and holding her captive in Molly’s crystalline palace. Ash is horrified when his mother is kidnapped, and immediately leads his friends on a rescue mission to get her back, literally putting his life at risk to brave the crystal wasteland and scale the tower and reach her.

Entei is the Unown’s avatar and determined to do whatever it takes to protect Molly, regardless of the morality.

Although Entei’s powers are formidable enough to render Delia a mindless drone who fully believes that she’s Molly’s “Mama”, its spell is broken when Delia sees Ash in danger, but she’s smart enough to quickly realise what’s been going on and to play along with the deception in order to try and reach Molly. Delia recognises that Molly has been very alone for a long time, even before Spencer went missing, and sympathises with her pain, but cannot condone Entei’s enabling and the disruptive influence of the Unown. It’s important to note for Poké-enthusiasts out there that the Entei seen is this film is not the Legendary Pokémon whom it resembles. Rather than being a reincarnated Pokémon known for its blazing Fire-type attacks, Entei is a creation of the Unown and more akin to a Psychic-type Pokémon. At the time, I considered this an odd decision as it kind of wastes the natural characterisation of this creature as one of a trio of Legendary Pokémon, but it actually goes a long way to supporting the deeper themes of the film surrounding grief and a child’s desire for love and affection. Born from Molly’s memories of her father, her love for him, and her idolisation of his strength and loyalty, Entei is granted incredibly powers by the Unown that are contrary to those it has in the games; it can teleport, control the minds of others, create crystalline structures at will, and spit out a powerful aura blast in addition to its durability and strength being theoretically inexhaustible. It is as strong and as capable as Molly wishes it to be, and as long as she believes in it, it can accomplish almost any feat, regardless of whether that action is morally right or wrong. A constant companion and guardian to Molly, Entei fully accepts her belief that it is her beloved “Papa” and goes to any lengths to keep her happy and to protect her, even battling against its out of control masters.

The Unown’s power is virtually limitless, and directly fuelled by Molly’s innermost desires.

So devoted is Entei to Molly that it not only bows to her every wish, but also encourages her to wish for more and to believe that she can anything she desires. When the authorities try to breach the crystal formation, Molly throws a temper tantrum and demands that they be kept out but, when she spots that Ash and the others are Pokémon trainers, she quickly wishes to engage them in Pokémon battles. Thanks to the Unown’s near-limitless power, the interior and environment of the palace constantly changes, and also allows Molly to conjure unbeatable illusionary Pokémon and even age herself up to be a more competent Pokémon trainer. Of course, thanks to the Unown’s power, she’s easily able to best her more experienced opponents with the likes of Teddiursa (Erica Schroeder) and Phanpy (Megumi Hayashibara) even when she should be hopelessly outmatched. She’s even able to flood the area with water, and allow her and Misty to breath underwater, so great are her powers, are she becomes so lost in her fantasy that Entei is empowered enough to battle even Ash’s stubborn and formidable Charizard (Shin-ichiro Miki), which arrives not only to help its former trainer but also to pit its strength against an opponent such as Entei. However, the battle proves destructive, wrecking much of Molly’s new home and leaving the heroes’ Pokémon hurt, and Charizard in danger of being killed by the furious Entei; the only hope for the heroes is for Delia, Ash, and the others to help remind Molly of her real family, both those who are gone and the family she could have by forming a bond with real Pokémon, which causes her to finally snap free from her fantasy and demand an end to the fighting.

The Nitty-Gritty:
One of issues I had with Pokémon the Movie 2000 was that it tried a little too hard to raise the stakes in comparison to the first film; while Pokémon: The First Movie was reconfigured into more of a worldwide threat in the English dub, the second film explicitly put the entire world at risk, so it’s a nice change of pace to see the third film tell a far more grounded, more personal story. This is most obvious in Delia’s larger role; up until now, she’s merely been a cameo or a bit-player in the films, but she’s a pivotal inclusion in this film and the driving force behind Ash’s excursion into the crystallised Greenfield. Indeed, he is driven to an uncharacteristic anger at her abduction, which is focused entirely on Entei and transforms into a battle of wills as Ash regards the beast as a mere illusion and Entei adamantly seeks to prove its reality and defend Molly by any means necessary.

Molly’s desire to have her family back means she dreams up her own fantasy world free from sadness.

Of course, it’s Molly’s sadness and grief that is at the heart of the movie’s story; already struggling after the loss of her mother, she was left despondent when Spencer disappeared as well and unable to properly process her anguish. When the Unown respond to her dreams and wishes, she finally feels that hole in her heart has been filled and is easily convinced that everything she is seeing is “real” and that she can be and have whatever she wants “as long as that is her wish”. It’s a powerful, emotional aspect of the film, and easy to forget that Molly isn’t some malevolent or mean-spirited antagonist. She’s just a frightened, lonely little girl who desperately wants her beloved “Papa” and “Mama” back, and is overjoyed to see her father returned in the form of Entei and her every wish brought to life by the Unown’s power. Similarly, Entei is not a necessarily vindictive entity; it’s simply acting out Molly’s wishes, whatever they may be, but bolstered by such vicious and formidable power that it transforms the once beautiful crystal tower into a hazardous landscape of spikes and battles Charizard with such an unmatched ferocity that it’s even posed to kill the helpless and outmatched creature. While Entei seems to fill the void in Molly’s life and heart, Delia and Ash and the others try to convince her that it’s merely another aspect of the Unown’s illusionary power; a false reality she’s conjured to shield her from facing the real world. Through them, she sees that real relationships can be forged through friends, partners, and make-shift families that can be just as fulfilling as having her every wish granted.

Probably the darkest and most personal Pokémon movie despite the odd changes to the source material.

I have to say that, given the trajectory of the Pokémon movies, I was surprised that a Pokémon as unremarkable and weak as Unown be such a focal point of this film, especially considering the next most obvious choice would have been to focus on Ho-Oh and the Legendary Beasts. Instead, though, Entei, Raikou (Katsuyuki Konishi), and Suicune (Masahiko Tanaka) were split up across specials and movies and it would take quite some time for Ho-Oh to actually make a real movie appearance. I guess this helped to make the movies a bit more unpredictable, and it certainly helped to make the Unown a surprising threat in this film, but I can’t help but feel like it was a missed opportunity. Still, the Unown are given an unexpectedly malicious edge in this film; while ostensibly appearing to be somewhat mischievous and aloof, their ability to read people’s minds and alter reality based on their wishes and dreams quickly makes them a threat to all of Greenfield. Not only do they transform the landscape, but they but many lives in danger through their quasi-avatar, Entei, and the strength of Molly’s tumultuous emotions soon sends their Psychic powers into overdrive. By the time she’s ready to leave behind her dreamworld and return to reality, the Unown have exerted so much power and thrown into such chaos by Molly’s emotional state that they’ve lost control of the illusion and the crystalline formations threaten to trap, or kill, everyone within. Their only hope is Entei, whom Molly pours all of her hopes and dreams and belief into to break through the Unown’s protective barrier and undo their magic, dispelling itself in the process. Although distraught to see her father-figure unmade, Molly has learned the value of friendship, co-operation, and family from Ash’s example and her story ends on a happy not when the Unown return not only Spencer but also his wife from their dimension. Thus, Greenfield is restored, Molly regains her true family, Delia is rescued, and Ash and the others continue on their Pokémon journey.

The Summary:
As much as the first two Pokémon films were a spectacle that released right as the franchise was at its peak, Pokémon 3: The Movie opts to tell a far more personal and emotionally-charged story by focusing on a little girl’s loneliness and despair and having Ash’s mother be caught up in a chaotic situation. This is easily the best part of the movie’s appeal, beyond the brutal and unrelenting battle between Entei and Charizard, and definitely makes it a worthwhile watch and worthy follow-up to its predecessors. It’s a very different movie from the last two, which placed the most powerful, mysterious, and elusive Pokémon at the centre of their stories and kind of slapped action set pieces around them, such was the allure of the Legendary Pokémon they featured, whereas Pokémon 3: The Movie fundamentally alters the characterisation, abilities, and role of Entei and the Unown in service of its story. As much as I appreciate the effort put into crafting a more poignant story that tackles the grief felt be the loss of a loved one and reinforces Pokémon’s overall themes of friendship and partnership, I still can’t help be disappointed by the depiction of Entei in this film. For me, splitting the Legendary Beasts up for so long as a major misstep and deprived us of seeing them make a proper, big screen impact. Still, this doesn’t dilute the story we’re given here and Pokémon 3: The Movie remains a unique entry in the Pokémon movie series since it keeps the stakes grounded and personal; while the literal world isn’t at risk, Molly’s dreamworld is and so is Ash and Delia’s (since they mean the world to each other), which really helps to make for a much more relatable and focused narrative. The Unown’s limitless and unpredictable powers, coupled with Entei’s mounting ferocity, make for a surprising threat against the heroes, who are constantly outmatched at every turn and only triumph by appealing to a frightened and hurt little girl’s heart, which definitely helps the film to make an impact even if I would have preferred more focus on the actual Legendary Pokémon.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Are you a fan of Pokémon 3: The Movie? What did you think to the more personal grounded focus? Did you like the depiction of Entei and the Unown or would you have preferred to see them portrayed closer to the source material? What did you think to Delia’s larger role and the focus on Molly’s grief? Which Pokémon game, generation, and creature is your favourite and why? How are you celebrating National Pokémon Day today? Whatever your thoughts, sign up to drop them in the comments below or feel free to leave a reply on my social media.

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