By Davone Presley
When the Pokémon anime series first reached American shores back in September of 1998, it marked the beginning of a worldwide phenomenon, the likes of which had never been seen before. Dubbed (the process of providing English voiceovers) by the controversial 4Kids Entertainment, the series’ English dub was celebrated by fans. Viewers grew attached to it regardless of, and in some cases because of, the many changes the dubbing company made to the show.
Naturally, the TV series’ success led to the creation of a feature film, starting a chain of yearly releases that goes on to this day. The aptly named “Pokémon: the First Movie”, a film that encompassed all of 4Kids’ flaws, including heavy rewrites, shoehorned morals, and replacing the entirety of the original films’ score, led to an English adaptation that ultimately failed to respect the vision of both the film’s (now deceased) screenplay writer Takeshi Shudo and the film’s director Kunihiko Yuyama.
The result was controversial among fans, panned by Western critics, and went on to become a box office hit earning over $10 million on its opening day and ending its theatrical run having earned over $85 million in North America alone.
22 years later, the newest film in the franchise, “Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution,” aims to evolve and remake the original film in more ways than one, leading to a film that ironically mirrors a key struggle of the famous Mewtwo, constantly falling under one key question; “What is its purpose?”
“Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution” is tasked with at once both being a nostalgic remake and a newer, more faithful take on the original film. This dichotomy is most clearly seen in the film’s visuals.
Rather than the traditional 2D art of its predecessor, with its darker color palette and stiffer motion overall, the film instead is rendered completely in CGI, courtesy of the series’ studio OLM Digital, along with Los Angeles based animation company Sprite Studios.
The characters on display are familiar but, with the change to 3D look both similar and eerily different. The sharp, angular Ash of the original film for example, is transformed into a rounder, younger looking character, along with every human in the film, leading to a very “hit or miss” approach depending on your preference. The Pokémon themselves fare much better (for the most part), sporting gorgeous details, such as rendered fur and scales, although not every Pokémon ends up faring for the better. The attempt at realistic-fire-covered Rapidash, for example, and Ash’s signature Charizard sport some rather odd proportions.
It is not just the characters that look different, as the whole film has been reconstructed from the ground up. No matter which version you watch, the key plot remains the same: energetic Pokémon trainer Ash Ketchum receives a letter inviting him and his traveling companions Brock and Misty to a party on the mysterious “New Island” to meet the world’s “strongest Pokémon Trainer”, and the trio, along with a smattering of others brave a near deadly storm to do so. As always the trio are followed by the lovably goofy villainous trio of Team Rocket.
Once there, the trainers and the Rocket trio find themselves trapped. and struggling to contend against a vengeful Mewtwo, an artificially created Pokémon who escaped from the lab it was created in. The titular villain is also at odds with its former master Giovanni, and seeks to understand why it was created and ultimately to prove its value as a living being.
Under the helm of the original film’s director Kunihiko Yuyama, alongside co-director Motonori Sakakibara, the film sports brighter colors and lighting, losing some of the original’s mood and aesthetic. In exchange, the storyboarding and direction are much more energetic, with a level of character acting and motion that remains one of the film’s most consistent, and visually pleasing traits.
Everyone, human and Pokémon alike, emotes with a heightened level of detail and character. The action in battles is rendered with energetic camera movements on a level unseen in the original film. However, these visuals highlight a main paradox with the film: it is familiar, but it also isn’t. This contradiction runs throughout and will ultimately shape the experience of those looking for a remake of the original 4Kids dub.
Some of the original voice actors reprise their roles from 4Kids’ take on the film, but even more are recast. The film utilizes the current cast of series voice actors that many fans of the original 4Kids dub still have not warmed up to, which is a shame considering the impressive vocal performances throughout. A particular standout performance comes from Ash’s current voice actress Sarah Natochenny. Her portrayal of Ash may not be what fans of the 90’s are used to, but her line delivery is consistently strong and confident, having fully grown into her role, as she demonstrates during some of the film’s key moments, especially the famous “petrified Ash” scene that is just as affecting here as it was when the film was first released.
Similarly, the script and score are a complete departure from the 4Kids English dub. Fans looking for an auditory nostalgia trip will be sorely disappointed as they listen to the characters they remember deliver differing lines with different voices from a different script, one that much more closely adapts Shudo’s original screenplay, along with some new additions courtesy of director Yuyama.
There are no singing Vikings, no moment where Team Rocket calls a Scyther an Alakazam, no “Brother my Brother,” however some references to 4Kids’ past with the series are kept, and in some cases even added in for nostalgia’s sake (“my famous Jelly Donuts!”).
For the most part, the film tells a much more faithful story of Mewtwo: an artificial Pokémon confused about its purpose. Mewtwo is not portrayed as a cartoonish villain bent on destroying the world, but rather a confused and angry being lashing out after being born into a world it never asked to be brought into.
It presents a tale that questions the nature of life and our purpose for being alive, ultimately coming to spread a message that celebrates all forms of life, demonstrating that the life of everyone, and every Pokémon, has value. It is genuinely powerful at times, but it is ultimately not what fans of the original dub grew up with.
That is where the film becomes a confusing recommendation. It is meant for the nostalgia filled adults who grew up with Veronica Taylor as Ash, with 90’s pop tunes blaring throughout, and yet it ends up completely different. As a nostalgia experience, the film ultimately falls in this intriguing middle ground, being recognizable, yet completely different at the same time, making it hard to recommend on nostalgia alone.
For those who never grew up with the original English dub, the film changes dramatically into a must-watch for anyone interested in the franchise, and what the series’ original writer intended for the anime to be.
The new dub is not without its fair share of glaring problems, including occasionally clunky translations and dialogue, questionable sound design at key moments, an inflated runtime, and sluggish pacing due to scenes that often run on longer than needed. The increased runtime could have been used to help flesh out the plot, a particularly egregious decision since this version (in both the dub and in its original Japanese) chooses to exclude a pretty important 10-minute short that the original dub chose to nearly completely cut.
The pacing is particularly noticeable with one battle at the end where the camera spends nearly a full minute tracking a field of battling Pokémon, trading the original’s series of slower, heavier, more varied cuts for a slicker but arguably less impactful uninterrupted shot, but even with all these flaws the film is still a treat for fans and newcomers alike.
For those wanting to relive their memories of the original dub however, while the film is still a good watch, it ultimately will not be the film they remember. For some that may be a deal breaker, but if you can look past it, be prepared for an exciting, and at times poignant piece of Pokémon media.