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Entertainment

Netflix's CG Remake of 'Pokemon: The First Movie' Recaptures the Fun Magic of the Original

The first movie I ever saw free from adult supervision was Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back in November of 1999. It was the middle of a weekday, and there was no way my accountant mother was going to skip a bunch of work to sit through 96 minutes of a children's anime movie when she already had to tolerate me watching Pokémon every day before school, calming me down after episodes -- like the one where Pikachu almost leaves his main boy Ash to live at the Pikachu colony -- knocked me out on my inconsolable kid ass. The movie was where she drew the line, so she let me, a friend, and my brother sit in a mostly empty theater by ourselves. Her loss, because Pokémon the First Movie was amazing.

More than two decades later, a nearly scene-for-scene remake, Pokémon the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back -- Evolution, has arrived on Netflix, falling into the streamer's Top 10, and taps into the memories of why I poured so much attention into all the Pokémon games, cards, and show in the first place. It should trigger a similar wave of sentimental nostalgia for anyone who's ever wanted a Charmander to call their own. 

For a subset of passionate fans, Pokémon: The First Movie was a cultural event, breaking multiple box office records on its way to becoming the highest grossing anime in the United States to date. Reporting on the phenomenon, The New York Times noted the spread of the "Pokéflu," where kids like me called out sick (with permission -- thanks, mom) to go see it when they should have been at school since it debuted on Wednesday, November 10, 1999, one year and two and a half seasons into the anime debuting on the Kids WB and Cartoon Network. The anticipation was sky-high.

What exactly were all these Pokéflu-addled children going to see? The film opens with "Pikachu's Vacation," a breezy 23-minute short before the full movie, but the real draw was the much-hyped reveal of the legendary Mew -- forever my favorite -- and its clone Mewtwo on a screen outside a Gameboy for the first time in the franchise. It's easy to forget that Pokémon: The First Movie was edgy for a kids' film. As Ash and co.'s nomadic training journey is interrupted by the lab-made Mewtwo's disruptive quest for self-actualization, the movie peddles existentialism-for-kids and grapples with the ethics of genetic manipulation and cloning in between showy Pokémon battles. The climax features Ash's near-death experience trying to stop the galactic, interminable fight between Mew and Mewtwo, and (spoiler, I guess) the healing qualities of Pokémon tears fixes an unfixable scenario catalyzing a euphoric happy ending where everyone Learns an Important Lesson. In short, it was sick as hell.

The Netflix-released CG remake hits these same notes with a modern reframing of certain scenes -- including a Who's That Pokémon? reprise -- and, of course, an entirely different visual style. It trades in the flat animation of the original movie and series for a very 2020 3D textured aesthetic that looks almost claylike, somewhere between a video game cutscene and Wallace and Gromit. The debate over this unfamiliar look has been dividing reviewers into polarized camps: It's either a soulful homage to its source material, or a crime against humanity that should be punted into the sea. (Netflix's recent video game adaptation, Dragon Quest: Your Story -- which is fun and also weirdly existential! -- sported a comparable style and provoked similar ire from longtime fans of the franchise.) 

There's an undeniable uncanniness to the human characters, particularly our hero, Ash Ketchum, and his ride-or-dies, Misty and Brock, and his bumbling rivals in Team Rocket. That quality becomes especially apparent watching them run like they're going to the store or in close-up reaction shots where the cartoon's hyper-exaggerated features override more nuanced expressions within joy or grief. Still, the movie delivers what most viewers will be looking for: the Pokémon, and it's where this CG animation shines most, outside of some truly great-looking environmental scenes, like a foamy ocean smacking against a cliff.

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Netflix

Animation studio OLM, which produced all 22 Pokémon movies for The Pokémon Company, stopped short of what Legendary Studios did with Detective Pikachu, where you could see every clearly defined hair on Pikachu's body and Mewtwo's gross popping neck veins. Instead, they retain the lovable flat design of the original and zhuzh it up with 3D depth, paying obsessive attention to details both big -- a flashy elemental Poké-move -- and small -- the eyes!

The Pokémon themselves have a dense buoyancy to them as if they were stress balls sitting on your desk or one of those polyester body pillows, which was always part of their charm to begin with. Imagine squeezing a real-life Togepi that looks like that! Just like in the first movie, Mewtwo Strikes Back -- Evolution presents a visual feast of the original 151 lineup: Ash's number one buddy Pikachu, Misty's resourceful Starmie, Brock's unbelievably cute Vulpix, a fiery Rapidash, a giant Gyrados, a befuddled Psyduck, the list goes on.

It's a triumph on multiple levels, hitting the nostalgic sweet spot that the incredibly fun Detective Pikachu couldn't exactly meet with its one foot in the real world. The new movie reaches in and pulls out the formative memory of sitting in a dark theater engrossed in the big showdowns, sad moments -- I'll always tear up watching Pikachu trying over and over and over to revive Ash --  and neat payoff at the end. Who says adults aren't allowed to wanna catch 'em all?

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Leanne Butkovic is an entertainment editor at Thrillist.