In 1997, the Pokémon anime series began to air on Japanese television and soon after took the world by storm. The iconic first episode starts by recreating the bootup sequence for the Gameboy, even down to the sound effects—the viewer sees nothing but a small, white rectangular box with Gengar and Nidorino stiffly attacking one another inside. When Nidorino jumps at Gengar, the camera twists, expanding the picture, adding color, and turning the traditional 8-bit Gameboy music into a full-blown orchestrated soundtrack.
In 2017, animation studio OLM breathes this same love into its 20th-anniversary celebratory film, Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! Arriving at the theater for Fathom Events’ limited-engagement screening, I immediately noticed there were two kinds of people sitting in the audience: small children under 10 and millennials in their late 20s and early 30s. Cosplay was in full bloom, and the air was electric. “You can take pictures with Pikachu after the movie!” a man shouted from the back, pointing to his full-size Pikachu costume propped up in the corner. Next to me, a young boy eagerly bounced in his seat as he waited for the movie to begin.
I Choose You! isn’t just any random Pokémon movie. It’s a retelling of Ash’s story when he first meets Pikachu, aimed at tickling the nostalgia of older fans while targeting a younger demographic. The opening-credit song, “Aim to Be a Pokémon Master” (Japan’s Kanto League opening), was replaced for English-speaking audiences with an updated version of “Gotta Catch ’em All,” otherwise simply known as the Pokémon Theme Song. I couldn’t help grinning as my childhood came rushing back. Scenes from the first few episodes played in the background while the credits rolled, setting up the movie’s tone.
This isn’t solely a retelling telling of the first few episodes of the anime, however. The plot of the movie deviates widely after Ash encounters the mysterious bird that flies over the rainbow, known in the movie as Ho-oh. There are new companions, and Pokémon from many different games make appearances in the film. When I went into I Choose You!, I assumed Ash’s new companions would be bothersome, considering his original traveling buddies, Brock and Misty, are well loved and an important part of Ash’s story. After meeting Sorrel and Verity, however, I realized their presence is a nonissue. Both are interesting characters, and the movie isn’t meant to replace the anime. Instead, it’s meant to celebrate Ash’s and Pikachu’s relationship and take us on a fantastical journey chasing legendary Pokémon.
In this, the movie wildly succeeds. The plot is solid, interesting, and doesn’t get sidetracked. You get the real sense Pikachu is more than just a mascot for the series, and this point is driven home by the movie’s climax. I felt close to Ash and Pikachu as characters, something I wasn’t expecting walking into the film. Pikachu’s longtime voice actor, Ikue Ōtani, proves once again that you don’t need words to convey emotion, and I deeply appreciated her performance in the movie. OLM went all-out with their animation, continually impressing me with the direction of fights and extra character movement they could’ve skipped over. The creators poured love into every scene of the movie, and the result is stunning. I usually find 3D backgrounds in anime jarring, but OLM’s were tastefully used and hardly noticeable.
My only real gripe with this movie was the Pokémon Company’s decision to use a replacement score for the English dub instead of OLM’s score filled with familiar soundtracks from the anime. Back when 4Kids Entertainment was dubbing Pokémon, they kept all the Japanese orchestrated video-game themes and added extra music to fill the silence. Because of this, children and adults familiar with the Kanto League section of the anime would’ve recognized the Japanese music in the movie, adding to the nostalgia and fun. I had been excited to hear songs such as the “Wild! Kanto Pokémon” battle theme because they meant so much to me growing up. The replacement score is dull by comparison and frustrating since the practice of replacing Japanese music for anime dubs has long since been left in the dust.
That complaint aside, however, this movie was thoroughly enjoyable. If you’re a Pokémon fan, don’t miss the chance to see I Choose You! in theaters. Not only is it fun and nostalgic but seeing the animation on the big screen is a treat. Many fans will be delighted by a special surprise towards the end of the movie—one that I wouldn’t dare spoil here.
Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! is in theaters across the Twin Cities November 11 through 14, 2017.