For the last 15 years or so, I have followed with great interest the development of the Pokémon franchise. Ever since I first played Silver on the Game Boy Color, I knew that it was something special. I watched the anime, too, though at the time I was only vaguely aware of its country of origin, but even with that experience under my belt, it seems almost surreal to discover that I Choose You! (dir. Yuyama Kunihiko, OLM) is the 20th film in the series. How, then, does it stack up to the rest of the franchise?
10-year-old Ash Ketchum (Sarah Natochenny) oversleeps on the day he is supposed to receive his first Pokémon from Professor Oak. When he finally arrives, his first choice – and second and third – has been taken, so Ash is stuck with the electric mouse creature named Pikachu (Kate Bristol), who refuses to obey his new trainer. We follow Ash as he sets out, with his stubborn companion, on his journey to become a Pokémon Master.
As you can probably tell from that summary, I Choose You!’s apparent aim is to retell Ash Ketchum’s origin story. However, after the familiar set-up, we are thrust into a credits sequence that blows past a number of Ash’s early encounters in a montage, only to re-join the story as it begins to diverge from the series’ canon. It even goes so far as to venture beyond the confines of Pokémon’s First Generation; many creatures from later editions of the games make appearances here, and while I don’t often attempt to make sense of Pokémon’s canon, it was very strange to see more contemporary Pokémon in what I had thought was a Generation I story.
In any case, had the film focused on retelling that first episode, perhaps shedding new light on Ash and his friend, and allowing both time to grow, while also exploring Ash’s potential for greatness – something that is accepted without question in the series – it would have been an enlightening experience. Instead, it immediately ignores its own story, and sets out to tell a new one.
One new idea is the introduction of the so-called Rainbow Hero. Originally, at the end of the TV series’ first episode, Ash sees a mysterious Pokémon silhouetted against the sky. This served as an Easter egg for fans; it was the legendary Pokémon Ho-oh. Whoever saw it would, supposedly, be granted their greatest wish. This film decides that that myth is not good enough, so invents a new one. As Ho-oh flies overhead, it drops a Rainbow Wing (which is actually a feather), and Ash is entrusted with the dubious task of finding and battling the legendary bird. He is aided in his quest by Marshadow, a Pokémon from Generation VII, whose job is to guide the Hero to Ho-oh, or to take back the Rainbow Wing if the trainer is not worthy. This is a somewhat pointless addition to the canon, as all it does is once again reinforce that Ash is pure of heart, where others (including his new rival Cross, voiced by Billy Bob Thompson) are callous and cruel and mistreat their Pokémon. As someone who has followed Pokémon for so long, I did not need reminding, but as this film is a new origin story, it makes sense to set up Ash’s character in this way.
Something many fans remember fondly from the TV series is Ash’s rapport with his travelling companions. We get to see Misty and Brock all too briefly in the end credits; before this, we are introduced to two new characters: Sorrel and Verity (voiced by David Oliver Nelson and Suzy Myers, respectively). They are, to put it bluntly, boring. Sorrel at least provides some exposition on the Rainbow Hero, but Verity is not so lucky. Either or both of these new companions could have been removed, and the story would not have been affected. In the end, I couldn’t help wonder why, if I Choose You! wanted to retell Ash’s story, it wouldn’t simply bring Misty and Brock along for the ride, as they were the first to accompany him. Instead, we are given two new faces that will appear here, and then never again. It is a waste.
As one might expect, the animation here is a vast improvement over the original episodes. In fact, Yuyama and his team appear to have taken a leaf out of Pokémon Sun & Moon’s book; while Ash’s design is reminiscent of his original look, he shares many similarities with the new, more animation-friendly design, which is great to see. While I don’t think there are any truly special moments here, overall the improvements made my viewing experience a fun one.
Something I feel must be mentioned, however vaguely (to avoid spoilers) is the controversy surrounding Pikachu. Without going into too many details, when the film was released, fans were perplexed, amused and, in some cases, incensed by a certain creative decision towards the end of I Choose You! Personally, I had no problem with it, as I feel that in context it made sense; but I do understand the confusion. However, it ends up being perhaps the most memorable moment of the film, and as it occurs during one of the more derivative moments (the film steals from the series’ canon multiple times, and the most egregious example is this climactic moment, which is lifted from an early series episode), it was welcome to me.
Pokémon: I Choose You! is not a very good film. There are some fun elements, and I did enjoy watching it, but in the end, so much falls flat, and I really can’t forgive the film for lifting its climactic moment from an early episode of the anime. I’d recommend this to Pokémon fans who wish to experience everything the franchise has to offer, or to those with little experience who need a doorway into the franchise.
Review copy provided by Manga Entertainment