February 27 was Pokémon Day, so named in honor of the first set of games released 24 years ago. It’s the same sort of “celebration” as any other fan-centric holiday mandated by corporations as an excuse to trend on social media, much the same way May the 4th has become an excuse to hock Star Wars crap. Only those in the know care, and I guess I count myself as such in both sets of fans. This year’s big event stateside is the Netflix release of Pokémon the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back — EVOLUTION, an all-CGI remake of the first movie of the decades-spanning anime franchise. For clarity, I will refer to the original as Mewtwo 1 from here on out, and the new film as Evolution. Is it any good? It’s as good as Mewtwo 1, being that it’s the exact same film in every way save the visuals. They are, literally, the same film. It’s a good thing, then, that so many have such fond memories of the original.
Both Mewtwo films are about the titular anthropomorphic psychic cat Pokémon waxing poetic about what it means to be alive. He awakens in a lab, parent-less, and is told to use his massive strength to serve humanity. However, he’s literally the power powerful being on the planet; why serve a lesser species? Then again, why rule them? Mewtwo is driven by pain, a Frankenstein’s Monster of sorts. His tragic qualities have made him an iconic villain in Pokémon lore. Given that this is, once again, literally just Mewtwo 1 with a fresh coat of paint, all of that is retained. It’s still a pleasure to watch.
How is that coat of paint? Well, unlike last year’s live-action Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, the budget isn’t there to redesign the Pokémon to look realistic. Everything is rendered in an oddly blocky way that feels like a compromise between live-action and animation — and not in a good way. Films like Frozen II and Moana have shown Disney making leaps and bounds in developing a texture for CGI movies that is as wholly unique as hand-animated movies. American studios are one thing; anime has long had its own stylistic attributes, too — legions of them, across genres and era. Although Mewtwo 1 and its sequels are frequently cited as being cheaply made, they still have a beauty to them. A language. Evolution doesn’t. It is facsimile.
However, it’s free facsimile for those those who subscribe to Netflix in America. The original is not available for free anywhere else, and this provides the nostalgic story without challenging any hard-retained memories of glib Mewtwo, clone Charizards fighting or Ash Ketchum being revived by Pikachu’s tears. It does the trick, but that’s all it does: There isn’t anything new here, and on a day devoted to selling merchandise for a franchise we can’t quit, it’s a genuine question of whether we deserve something new in the first place.
Therein lies the greatest weakness of Evolution. The past 20 years have seen the number of Pokémon grow by hundreds — new adventures in new game worlds. The live-action movie, which sucked, tried to inject a different tenor to the stories being told with these characters in this imaginative fictional realm. In adhering so closely to Pokémon as it existed decades ago, the creative team being Evolution doesn’t so much reward the ongoing fanbase as it brushes aside the experiences they’ve had with the series over the course of their lives. We may not deserve anything new — shit, I’m writing about Pokémon at age 30 — but I wish we did. Maybe the key is to stop caring about Pokémon.