Pokémon is estimated to be the highest grossing media franchise of all time, having made more money than Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe put together thanks to a vast array of video games, trading cards, the long-running anime series, and billions of dollars in officially licensed merchandise. Now we have Detective Pikachu, the franchise’s first live-action adaptation. If the longevity and magnitude sounds surprising, ask a child of the late ’90s just how hard Pokémon worked on their emotions.
For a fresh-faced, adult generation, 1998’s Pokémon: The First Movie – or Pokémon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back for fans of extraneous subtitles – was a watershed moment in those feelings. Like many young British Pokémon fans, I first experienced the film on home video, arriving in a garish yellow box with a free Mewtwo trading card. The short film that precedes the feature, Pikachu’s Vacation, is vintage Pokémon and sets a larky tone that the movie almost immediately dispels. But Pokémon: The First Movie is a vicious exercise in emotional trauma — largely thanks to its final act.
The movie focuses on a nefarious plot hatched by the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo. Furious with humans for creating him as a mere experiment, and with the Pokémon who allow themselves to be used as pets/servants/competitive fighters by humans, Mewtwo lays a trap. A handful of trainers, including our hero Ash, are invited to battle the “world’s greatest Pokémon master”. When they get there, Mewtwo easily defeats their Pokémon using a set of clones he has created and he subsequently clones all of their Pokémon as well. This triggers a grotesque sequence in which the Pokémon fight their doppelgängers as Mewtwo battles Mew — his own original form.
It’s no coincidence that Mewtwo pops up again as a main player in Detective Pikachu, the writers replicating the Pokémon’s back story of human experimentation. His character has always existed as a compelling midpoint on the spectrum between Pokémon and humanity, positioned as a creature whose explicit connection to people pushes him away from other Pokémon, while his human creators see him as nothing more than a science project. This makes him the rarest of commodities: a Pokémon with a clear narrative purpose, driving force and a character arc as he searches for his raison d’être. He is also capable of speech, which makes him a valuable tool for storytellers looking to bridge the human-Pokémon divide, just as Team Rocket’s unique Meowth has always been.
The genius of this Pokémon-vs-Pokémon scene in The First Movie is in how it addresses one of the key complaints made by Poké-skeptics about the franchise’s morality. The series is built on “battles” between these creatures, so how can it preach love, tolerance, and peace? The answer comes in one character’s poignant insistence that “Pokémon aren’t meant to fight — not like this”. It’s the difference between a boxing match and a fight to the death. The theme is assisted by the rather on-the-nose Blessid Union of Souls track, “Brother, My Brother” that plays over the sequence. “Tell me what are we fighting for,” the song goes, “we’ve got to end this war”.
The moral message of Pokémon: The First Movie is about as light-footed as a hungry Snorlax, but that doesn’t dilute its power. This is particularly true given the strength of the feeling that a Poké-fan audience has towards the characters who are fighting. It would take a pretty hard-hearted viewer to not be moved by the spectacle of Pikachu refusing to fight back as the clone version of him unleashes punch after punch, with tears flying from both of their eyes. If there has ever been a more surprisingly effective symbol for the futility of war on screen, I’d be shocked.
At that moment, Ash — watching from above in horror as the audience surrogate — decides that enough is enough and throws himself between Mew and Mewtwo. The combined power of the two legendary Pokémon’s energy hitting Ash turns him into a petrified, stone figure. Why petrified stone? Pokémon doesn’t really do science and logic, and petrified stone is creepy.
For those who didn’t wear down a VHS copy of The First Movie, Ash’s sacrifice triggers an epiphany in Mewtwo, who realizes that the bond between Pokémon and their trainers is not one of servitude. Meanwhile, Pikachu rushes to Ash’s side and repeatedly electrocutes his friend in the hope of reviving him, becoming increasingly desperate. Pikachu begins to cry, and soon, the tears of the Pokémon are drawn to Ash’s body, fulfilling a prophecy about the powerful tears of these creatures, their grief revives him.
For this writer, and many other children of the Pokémon generation, that scene marked the first time a movie made them cry. It was the perfect culmination of a phenomenon that had been gaining momentum for many years, building an intense relationship between fans and the adorable little critters at the center of the story. The fact it came hand in hand with a very positive message of tolerance and peace was the cherry on top.
Twenty years after it was first released, Pokémon: The First Movie still retains an enormous nostalgic pull for those who experienced it during their youth, and it’s this resonance that undoubtedly drives Mewtwo’s inclusion in Detective Pikachu. This emotional story is set to be introduced to a whole new generation of fans with a CGI remake, Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution, later this year, but the original is a powerful and resonant adventure that stands as a true milestone in the cinematic education of many of its viewers.