Pokémon: I Choose You arrived on Netflix worldwide in January, the twenty-third anniversary of the franchise is nearly upon us, and AniTAY is trying to reinvigorate its site’s reviews. Using that thin pretext as an excuse to write about Pokémon, let’s discuss the film. Please note that I was only able to watch the dub version of the film, and thus will be using the English language names of the characters. Furthermore, any thematic discrepancies that might exist due to dub edits cannot be helped (though we are far removed from the halcyon days of 4Kids’ onigiri donuts, so hopefully it will be fine). Finally, given that this review is being published a year and a half after initial release, and the film is based on an anime from 1997, it will contain explicit spoilers for the sake of comparison and analysis.
Produced as part of Pokemon’s twentieth anniversary celebration, Pokémon: I Choose You creates a structural framework from the nostalgia-ridden story beats of the original Indigo League adventures, paring perpetual protagonist Ash Ketchum back down to his essential characteristics whilst still weaving in the aggregated lore of the series. In doing so, the film examines the ideals of the anime vis-à-vis Ash and reconciles them with the central tenets of the franchise as a whole. Although this results in the most thematically potent Pokémon film since perhaps Entei—Spell of the Unknown, it consequently truncates the character arcs of both people and Pokémon alike such that some of the impact of those meditations is unfortunately lost.
Let’s start at the beginning of Ash’s journey: the ten-minute pre-credits sequence is a slightly condensed recreation of the first anime episode that gives the film its title. It is a testament to the strength of the first episode that not much of its imagery and story beats have been altered. As it was all those years ago, Ash’s character is laid out succinctly: dogged in his efforts to catch and train Pokémon, whether by pulling along his Pikachu with a rope, or throwing stones at Pokémon to weaken them when Pikachu refuses to battle; prone to slapstick injuries; and possessing an unabiding love for his pocket monsters, which manifests itself in Ash protecting Pikachu against a flock of agitated Spearow. It remains a moving moment when Pikachu recognises how much Ash cares for him and jumps up to save his new friend. The devotion Ash shows to both his Pokémon and goal of being a Pokémon Master in this sequence makes the case for his appeal as a main character.
This is Ash’s film, but it difficult to talk about what he represents without discussing Pokémon’s heritage. There has always been something of a disconnect in the video games between the story and gameplay mechanics, with the former pointedly caring for every Pokémon’s place in society and the latter assigning Pokémon artificial numbers that make some inherently better than others. The dichotomy has metastasised as Pokémon has evolved, and the franchise has spent the better part of a decade trying to make those two aspects congruous, servicing casual players who grow attached to their regularly caught Pokémon and the players who ruthlessly breed the best Poké-specimen. Similarly, the Pokémon anime, especially the films, regularly flitters between emphasising the unique speciality of the individual and the equality of partnership. These ideas are also derived from their game basis, which tasks you, the player, with completing the Pokédex and becoming Champion, while your reliance on your Pokémon to do so creates camaraderie.
It is in this nexus of conflicting elements that Ash holds an important position. More recent anime seasons and films have found a platonic ideal, giving Ash his own “chosen one” narrative related to the region he traverses while playing up his stalwart approach to raising Pokémon, physically training alongside them as they enhance their talents. He respects his Pokémon’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as their individual mentalities. Through this, Pokémon is positing that Ash is an ideal type of trainer, and one that players should seek to emulate. Pokémon: I Choose You continues this trend, not only by literally anointing Ash as the “Rainbow Hero” who can summon Ho-Oh, but also gifting him a talisman that measures his purity of heart: Ho-Oh’s rainbow wing feather.
Ash also delivers a rebuke of players who dispose of their weaker Pokémon in the pursuit of perfect, powerful creatures. This foil to Ash’s ethos is embodied by a character named Cross, a character reminiscent of Paul from the Diamond and Pearl anime, and he owns an often terrifying Midnight Lycanroc and Incineroar. Most tellingly, Cross also sees a Ho-Oh, and in a moment of desperate anguish, laments that he did not also receive a Rainbow Wing. Pokémon never had that much use for subtlety.
Therefore, the most shocking turn of events is not the much-publicised “I love you” from Pikachu (which is spoken while Ash is somewhat delirious yet still sounds odd), but rather that Ash’s faith in his Pokémon’s ability wavers and he considers ditching them for stronger ones.
The Ash from the regular anime continuity has had several crises of faith over the years, most memorably when he and Pikachu lost to Lieutenant Surge and the two of them contemplated evolving Pikachu. In that instance, Ash let Pikachu decide for himself. Similarly, Ash has released Pokémon, but only to make them happier. And although he has doubted his own abilities as a trainer before, the blame this version of Ash briefly places on his Pokémon for not being powerful enough is wholly new and almost antithetical to the established character. It is implied that the appearance of the lurking mythical Pokémon Marshadow (whose exact role and allegiance in relation to Ho-Oh is as murky as its colouring) induced or at least exacerbated these negative feelings, so Ash might never have been doubtful under normal circumstances, yet the brief absence of belief precipitates Pokémon: I Choose You’s most interesting sequence: a nightmare about the absence of Pokémon.
Waking up inside a regular world akin to ours, Ash is consigned to the mundane routine of school, daydreaming about life beyond the classroom walls, seeing brief glimpses of Pikachu in an aeroplane flying overhead or echoes of his cry. While it serves as a way for Ash to recognise how empty his life is without Pikachu and company, as the scene goes on, Ash is brought out of his reverie not by distinctly remembering Pokémon, but rather by the exciting potential of exploring beyond the next town, and the town beyond that. Exploration and discovery in the games are part of the reason Pokémon thrives as a series. Although the sequence is tinged in a melancholic grey, for the first time Pokémon transposes the series’ enduring appeal directly onto the real world. By turning subtext into text for the audience, it is a soothing balm for all those who still silently wish, in the humdrum of life, that Pokémon were real. Our imaginative escapisms might not really exist, yet the feelings of adventures and excitement that they bring are. That upon Ash’s epiphany Pikachu finally appears fully-formed in his mind cements the message. This one hopeful moment, for all the film’s issues, makes I Choose You a worthwhile celebration. It is not just a celebration of the series, but of its fans too.
The impact of the dream sequence lies primarily in its excellent pacing and in the larger film’s commendable job of illustrating Ash’s personal strengths. Thus, it is a shame how abbreviated the rest of the film feels at times, particularly at the expense of Ash’s emotional arcs with his Pokémon. Ash’s party is cut down to two other Pokémon than Pikachu—Caterpie and Charmander—both of whom had some of the more significant development in the original series. Yet to the film’s detriment in adapting their stories, almost all of their personality traits are lost.
Caterpie admittedly had a very short arc in the original anime as well, but elements such as Caterpie’s conveying to Pikachu that he felt weak and had a desire to fly, gave weight to the achievement of evolving into Metapod and then Butterfree. In I Choose You, the creature’s bonding with Pikachu is relegated to part of a montage, and both Caterpie and later Metapod serve purely functional roles. The subsequent recreation of Butterfree’s departure, while lovingly animated, rings hollow due a perceived lack of connection between the Pokémon and Ash.
Charmander by contrast, aside from the premise of being abandoned by another trainer, eschews too many comparisons with his original series counterpart. That said, Charmander’s changing personality as he evolved, and Charizard’s lack of respect for Ash followed by his regained trust is one of the defining relationships from the original series. Here, after Ash rescues Charmander and nurses him back to health, the Pokemon’s screentime is limited to a brief battle that immediately results in evolution and then a reappearance at the climax. The loss of Charmander’s original plot might be a practical one due to its general similarity with Pikachu’s initial reluctance, but once again, the somewhat stunted arc leaves Ash’s relationship with his Pokémon slightly in flux, especially when taken in tandem with his period of regret for having captured them. The firm declaration of wanting to make friends isn’t paired with showing blossoming friendship.
Strangely, Pikachu is also slightly neglected by the film. However, Ikue Otani has her showcase, moving through a range of emotions well-honed over the years. The aforementioned “I love you” moment is frankly superfluous due to Otani’s masterful conveyance of Pikachu’s emotions throughout the film. It is a testament to her performance that such a forthright Pokémon comes across as a layered individual who manages to elicit genuine pathos from the audience with a combination of three syllables. Otani’s skill manages to build up Pikachu’s half of the enduring partnership, even when the scripting does not.
It is probably fair to question why shortened arcs for the Pokémon are an issue; after all, previous Pokémon films rarely busied themselves with character studies of Ash’s Pokémon in lieu of the legendary Pokémon featured. However, those films existed in the regular anime continuity and drew upon pre-existing lore. By being something of a retelling, I Choose You ostensibly places Ash’s team at the centre of this story and then overshadows them with other narrative threads.
Similarly, this review has focussed on Ash because his human enemies and companions are fairly short-shrifted. Also, with the exception of Ash and Pikachu, there is a strict separation between comedic and tragic characters, which is honestly more akin to Roman (and later Shakespearean) dramatic tradition than the typical Pokémon canon. Team Rocket takes this to an extreme, with their presence being totally superfluous and devoid of their cursory involvement in moving the film’s story along or heroics in alliance with Ash. There are no less than three “blasting off again” moments, but they provide light comedy respites from the serious stories of the remaining characters, particularly Sorrel and Verity, Ash’s new companions.
Although certainly cast in the mould of the beloved Brock and Misty, Sorrel and Verity establish themselves with melancholic histories and motivations during their brief time in the limelight. Sorrell has a particularly moving vignette of his family’s Luxray protecting him in a blizzard. Pokémon usually addresses tragedy fairly obliquely, which is why the few examples where it confronts it directly, such as Marowak’s death back in the Red, Blue, and Green games stand out. However, death continues to permeate Pokémon, given being the endpoint of even the most fruitful partnerships. Sorrell, experiencing the loss of Luxray at such a young age, recoiled from Pokémon. Although his recovery is not shown, the maturity and stoicism it lends his character is a good contrast to the more naïve and brash Ash, and the admonishment he gives Ash in the face of his foolhardiness is a firm statement about resilience after loss. The film does not have much time for showing training and so this incarnation of Ash has little experience not winning. Not giving up to the grind of life and accepting its tribulations is a key message from Pokémon, and Sorrell delivers it prudently.
Verity is also an experienced trainer, but her story is more internal: feeling undermined by her mother. The lack of breathing space for plots in I Choose You is most evident here. Verity’s conflict is a profound one of the human psyche, but disappointingly never resolved in a meaningful way. However, her wistfulness comes through in small measures. The tension between Verity’s own lack of self-confidence and the image that her newfound friends have of her is woefully under-explored. Her friends’ confidences have some basis, though; she is totally unafraid to battle Entei with a Piplup. So it is a shame that Verity is not more prominent—her reticence to share personal doubts is a relatable one and would have made for a strong counterpart to Ash’s story given their similar fervour in Pokémon battles. At the very least, she earns Ash’s immediate approval, who boldly pits his Pikachu against the Legendary Beast in the same battle.
The appearance of the Legendary Beast Pokémon, especially Entei, inspire the expected awe with their scale, but also the threat of their barely contained power. I Choose You manages to viscerally convey the power of untamed Pokémon with fires spreading through forests and injuring Pokémon or characters being thrown aside, lending credence to Ash’s skill in having trained several Pokémon. In combat, there is a genuine sense of violence as Pokémon bear down on one another. Yet the film also gives time to quieter moments of Pokémon peacefully coexisting with each other and their habitats. With that balance, the film succeeds better than most in illustrating that Pokémon, with their abilities, are true embodiments of the nature in which they reside, with all its force and variability.
By showing the ecosystem, the stakes of the climax subsequently feel steeped in the fate of the larger Pokémon world, even if it is highly personal. The finale is a well-wrought Pokémon battle, sometimes recalling the raw brutality of the battles in the very first Pokémon film, Mewtwo Strikes Back. The film falls short of fully recapturing the emotional heft of that film, but Pikachu’s pain, again thanks to Ikue Otani, is once again palpable. As the ultimate indication of I Choose You’s focus, Ho-Oh’s appearance is limited, with the inevitable Legendary battle cutting straight to the aftermath and Ash’s tired but enthusiastic face.
Ho-Oh may be a framing device, but the creature’s history is one of revival: it reincarnated three Pokémon as Entei, Raikou, and Suicune after they had died in a burning tower. Their presence in the film, aside from a welcome inclusion of lore, threads the theme of rejuvenation through the characters’ arcs, occasionally overtly appearing at turning points in the story. For example, shortly after Verity spies Suicune purifying lake water, she verbalises her dissatisfaction with her mother. I Choose You may struggle to give every major character a full journey, but their stories all stem from this central point of renewal: Ash and Pikachu reaffirming their friendship; Charmander trusting trainers once more; Sorrell befriending Pokémon; Verity regaining confidence in herself; Cross reconsidering how he treats Pokémon. The unifying theme between the major dramatis personae brings cohesion even when the broken strands of storytelling threaten to unravel I Choose You’s effectiveness.
The film itself is a revival of the strength Pokémon films once had. Since Jirachi Wishmaker, the majority of the films have existed as legendary or mythical Pokémon showcases, purely focussed around their powers and abilities rather than using them as thematic conduits. This is obviously not the only manner in which legendary Pokémon should be used, and indeed the variation to their roles in films—such as Darkrai, a harbinger of nightmares, subverting expectations by being a prominent mediator and conciliator in The Rise of Darkrai—is welcome, but the best movies have consistently related the themes back to the legendary monster, increasing their importance and mystique. Conversely, the general loss of overarching themes to tie the stories and characters together echoes the worst of critics’ persistent complaints that the anime is a soulless marketing exercise.
The films dropped to a particular low-point just before I Choose You with the XY collection of films (which is especially strange, since the XY and XY&Z television series were tautly written). 2015’s Hoopa and the Clash of Ages is the worst offender. The story is as negligible as the eponymous Hoopa is irritating. Not one character has significant development. This thematically listless film exists purely as an excuse to cram in fourteen legendary and mythical Pokémon and have them battle each other. In theory, that alone should be an epic experience in all senses of the word. However, the abundance of Pokémon removes emotional connections to individuals, and their disposable roles are so utilitarian—purely monsters sent out to fight—that they lose their majesty. Thus, the seemingly endless battles have no weight, are a dull slog, and criminally destroy the aura of legendary Pokémon. Even Ash is pretty much sidelined, so the audience has to contend with the annoying Hoopa repeating an aggravating catchprase—the insipid “Alléhooparing!”—for 78 minutes until it is bored deep into the hippocampus as permanent reminder of wasted time and potential.
The foregoing is all to emphasise that despite Ho-Oh’s limited role, its presence as symbol of revival is a vital element that gives I Choose You’s overall composition genuine purpose, helping to unify character, story, and theme. I worried that the Pokémon films would never recapture their pertinence. I Choose You restores the resonance these movies once had via Ho-Oh, and in doing so, rekindles my affection for them.
So although I Choose You falters with balancing narrative elements at times, it is still a pleasant and worthwhile watch, not simply for the sake of nostalgia. Pokémon: I Choose You is not the very best Pokémon movie, like no other ever was. Yet taken as both a synthesis and celebration of Pokémon’s two decades that tries to examine the trainer that is Ash Ketchum, and finds a firm thematic foundation in doing so, I Choose You is an auspicious and optimistic sign for Pokémon’s next two decades of adventure, as much as seeing Ho-Oh overhead was for Ash in 1997.
I am especially grateful to MamaLuigi, who very kindly went through this essay, editing line by line despite having a load of university work to do. His advice and suggestions undoubtedly strengthened this article. I would also like to thank ShadowHaken for his helpful comments on this piece before its publication.
Pokémon: I Choose You can be seen in most Netflix regions or is available on Bluray and DVD. To see more of this continuity’s Ash Ketchum, check out The Power of Us, inspired by Pokémon 2000, and the upcoming Mewtwo Strikes Back Evolution, a 3D-animated remake of the very first movie.
This article was partially written to commemorate the 23rd Anniversary of Pokémon, on February 27th, 2019. To read more about my thoughts on Pokémon, I wrote this article for the 20th Anniversary.
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