Trade Show

Card-based Pokémon sequel trots out this year's gotta-haves -- but not much else

Antonioni and Bergman, I get. Show me Buñuel or Godard, Tarkovsky or Marguerite Duras, and you won't see me knit my brow. David Lynch is a snap. I can even sort of see where Stan Brakhage is coming from. When it comes to cryptic cinema, I'll sit there and find it rich and suggestive and meaningful with the best of them.

But Pokémon the Movie 2000? That's over my head.

All around me in the theater, kids were plainly comprehending every subtle nuance of what they were seeing. Something chaotic would happen up there onscreen, and the kids would go, "Aaaah," or "Told ya," or "I knew it!" At first I thought that this was just my turn at feeling like my parents and teachers did three decades ago, hearing my friends and me babble about "phasers" and "warp speed" and the like, but after a while I felt it went beyond that. It was more like seeing kabuki or Kathalkali, uninterpreted, with a native audience.

Creature feature: From left, Pikachu, Ash, Balbasaur and Squirtle in Pokémon the Movie 2000.
Creature feature: From left, Pikachu, Ash, Balbasaur and Squirtle in Pokémon the Movie 2000.

It had not escaped my notice, of course, that the merchandising craze du jour among kids last year was a line, from Japan, of trading cards and toys (and video games and backpacks and sneakers) representing misshapen little goobers in primary colors, with bright, inexpressive eyes, vaguely reminiscent of various animal species or, in some cases, inanimate objects. Play involves declaring yourself a Pokémon "trainer," and summoning said little goobers, who are in your power, to fight for truth, justice and, well, you know, for truth and justice. Harmless fun for the kiddies, and in a few months it goes the way of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Power Rangers, right?

Evidently not. The first Pokémon movie, titled Pokémon: The First Movie, was a hit around the holidays last year. I saw this follow-up -- directed, like the first, by Kunihiko Yuyama (the English version of the script is credited to Michael Haigney and Norman J. Grossfeld) -- in a packed theater from which dozens, possibly hundreds, of kids and wretched parents had been turned away.

Here's the best I can do to summarize Pokémon the Movie 2000: First of all, it's not one movie, but two short ones, both rendered in garish, slapdash animation. The shorter and more enigmatic of these is the opener, an adventure featuring Pikachu, the rain-slicker-yellow cross between a prairie dog and a mango who is the only Pokémon I can identify by name. Somehow or other, Pikachu and a little band of his pals fall down a Lewis Carroll-esque hole in the ground and plop into an idyllic landscape. Here they wander around, encountering swarms of other odd little goobers, including an anthropomorphic electrical plug, who joins forces with them. The group ends up struggling -- mostly, as far as I could tell, against bad weather -- to rescue a nest of eggs with faces.

One of Pikachu's friends looks like a tulip crossed with a broken Easter egg; one looks like a fuzzy purple insect; another looks like a squirrel covered with mildewed bathroom tile; yet another looks like some sort of Scandinavian marital aid with legs and a smiley face. Only one, sort of a spiny-faced cat, speaks a few lines of English. Everyone else makes infantile vocalizations. The platypus is apparently the comic relief; at any rate, the tykes chuckled appreciatively whenever he (or she?) came trotting onscreen.

This nearly pre-verbal opening act seemed to be the part that the kids liked best. Before the movie, they were the usual squalling, squabbling, wheedling, whimpering mob, but once it started, they became a rapt, attentive, responsive audience. The second half of Pokémon the Movie 2000, however, intended as the main attraction, has a more conventional narrative involving Pikachu's boss, a boy-hero out of the Speed Racer school, with a love interest and a villain and supporting characters and expository dialogue. Not surprisingly, the kids grew a bit more restless and noisy during all of this.

The fairly complicated plot of the second episode concerns the efforts of the English-accented villain, the ruler of a Jules Verne-ish flying fortress, to capture three birdlike "legendary" Pokémon, and in so doing to unleash a fourth beast from the depths of the sea. When this winged leviathan finally came into view, the kids perked up, and I got the impression from their rumblings that this was a new Pokémon being introduced by the film.

Of course, a lot of children's movies -- and plenty of movies for grown-ups, come to think of it -- amount to little more than commercials for merchandising. The difference with Pokémon the Movie 2000 is that the kids seemed to realize it. They sat there watching the product line onscreen not as audience members but as committed consumers -- with keen interest, but no real joy.

 
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