Mutant hybrid of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Hello Kitty, Pokémon has -- or is it "Pokémons have"? -- swept the U.S. to an astonishing degree in little more than one year, suggesting that Japanese scientists have brought marketing to a level of precision undreamt of in the West. Toys, cartoon show, games, collectible cards: Pokémon is many things to many people -- almost all of them under the age of 13. (Endocrinologists are currently studying the possibility that puberty may be the ultimate Poké-killer.)
For those of you with neither children nor access to press kits, a little background: A Pokémon is a creature, generally diminutive, of adorable mien and with one or more of a range of superpowers. Each is kept as a pet by a "trainer," who employs them in battles with other trainers' Pokémons. Nintendo taxonomists have identified more than 150 distinct varieties, all of which children need to collect if they wish to become "The World's Greatest Pokémon Master" -- an admirable goal for any young person in today's chaotic world. According to its makers, Pokémon is short for "pocket monster," and there is no doubt that Pokémon can lay waste to the contents of your pockets as surely as Godzilla obliterated Tokyo. A Japanese anime feature -- directed by Kunihiko Yuyama and Anglicized by Michael Haigney -- Pokémon: The First Movie centers on the adventures of Ash Ketchum, a teenage trainer with a first-rate Pokémon named Pikachu (rhymes with "peekaboo"). Pikachu appears to be a pastel potbellied pig.
The plot is more or less lifted from Enter the Dragon: A Leia-like hologram invites Ash and his pals Misty and Brock to a special Pokémon competition on New Island. Their archrivals -- Jessie, James, and a Pokémon named Meowth, whose persona is basically Joe Pesci in the Lethal Weapon series -- aren't invited but sneak in anyway.
The road to New Island isn't a smooth one, however. Gathering at a port facility called Pokémon Center, the kids find their embarkation threatened by a giant storm. "The harbormaster thinks that this could be the worst storm ever!" one of the P.C. officials announces, apparently having never heard of Noah and the Deluge.
In any case, it's not bad enough to stop our intrepid protagonists. More's the pity for them: On arrival, they discover that the contest is in fact the handiwork of Mewtwo, a power-mad Pokémon with an evil plan. Human scientists, meddling as always, have cloned Mewtwo off of Mew, the legendary and rare "most powerful Pokémon ever." Mewtwo, like Frankenstein's monster, resents his unnatural birth and, much like every villain in every anime feature, intends to take over the world. "Humans and Pokémon can never be friends!" intones this apparent Pokémon separatist. And to prove it, he has created an army of evil Pokémon clones to battle their good-guy look-alikes.
Will Ash, Pikachu and their comrades manage to thwart his scheme and save the world? We don't believe in giving away endings, but the answer to the above question begins with "y" and ends with "s" -- in case you had any doubt.
The film seemed to please the youngest children in the audience, who squealed frequently and even applauded at moments that were either particularly cathartic or redolent with piquant philosophical overtones. And, despite the Noah gaffe mentioned above, Christian parents may find cause to embrace the film: Pikachu wins his battle by turning the other cheek until his bellicose opponent drops from exhaustion; and Mewtwo is so moved by observing Ash give up his life for his people and then inexplicably resurrect that he converts from evil to good.
To the adult chaperon consciousness, the whole affair is at least tolerable -- which is more than can be said for Pikachu's Vacation, a short that Warner Bros. has inexplicably attached to the front of the film. Pikachu's Vacation, resembling an animated version of those thankfully disappeared travelogues that used to play before the matinees of my youth, seems to be designed as a crash course in Pokémon lore, narrated by a computer-generated voice. Given that most of the audience is already more than familiar with this arcana, and that the rest are all old enough to figure out the basic rules on their own from the first third of the feature, it's unclear just who the short is designed for. In any case, it's so inert that its 20 minutes or so feels longer than the 80 minutes of the feature.