What’s the deal with Netflix’s ‘Pokemon’ movie? It’s the first Pokemon remake
It’s been over 20 years since 10-year-old Ash Ketchum first met Pikachu and embarked on a journey to become the very best Pokemon Master that ever was. The best friends have traveled across various lands, competed in countless battles and are still hitting new milestones.
Ash and Pikachu revisit their roots and tackle a few new firsts in their latest animated feature, “Pokemon: Mewtwo Strikes Back — Evolution,” out now on Netflix. The film is a 3DCG remake of the first film of the franchise — “Pokemon: The First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back” — making it both the first-ever remake and the first fully 3DCG installment in the long-running movie franchise.
It’s also the first “Pokemon” movie to be released globally (excluding Japan and Korea) as a Netflix Original, after the streamer acquired the license from the Pokemon Company International. And the release date is no accident: Thursday was Pokemon Day, which commemorates the anniversary of the original game’s release in Japan.
Although the plot and story beats are nearly identical, “Mewtwo Strikes Back — Evolution” is not quite a shot-for-shot remake of “Pokemon: The First Movie.” The new film runs slightly longer — fans will notice it includes some tweaks that help clarify certain moments and others that help update jokes.
Additionally, while “Mewtwo Strikes Back — Evolution” is another story that spotlights a Pikachu and the man-made Pokemon Mewtwo, the film has no relation to the live-action/CGI hybrid “Detective Pikachu” released last year by Warner Bros. The two movies occupy different planes in the “Pokemon” multiverse, and the computer-animated Pokemon in each couldn’t look more different.
Directed by Kunihiko Yuyama and Motonori Sakakibara, “Mewtwo Strikes Back – Evolution” is actually the 22nd installment in Japan’s animated “Pokemon” movie series, and it hit theaters there last July.
At the time, Yuyama told the Japanese press that the possibility of making a fully 3DCG “Pokemon” movie was an idea that had long been floated around. And while the timing of “Mewtwo Strikes Back — Evolution” had more to do with all the technical elements falling into place than anything else, he added that there was a sense of inevitability to the franchise’s first 3DCG movie revisiting the very first movie in the series.
For Yuyama, “Mewtwo Strikes Back — Evolution” marks a return to the director’s seat. In addition to overseeing the first six series of the Japanese “Pokemon” cartoon (which internationally has been broken up to span 22 seasons), Yuyama has directed the first 20 films. (He served as the animation supervisor on the 21st, “Pokemon the Movie: The Power of Us,” directed by Tetsuo Yajima.)
Short for “Pocket Monsters,” the massive multimedia franchise’s roots are in the role-playing videogames released in Japan on Feb. 27, 1996, as “Pokemon Red” and “Pokemon Green.” By the time the titles hit the U.S. as “Pokemon Red” and “Blue” in 1998, the Pokemon craze was well underway across the Pacific: The TV series had launched, a movie had been released, and there were sequel games on the way.
The animated series, which also made it to the U.S. in 1998, follows a boy named Ash from Pallet Town, who dreams of becoming the world’s best Pokemon trainer, and his partner Pikachu. The cute, yellow, electric mouse Pokemon has been a pop culture phenomenon ever since.
For more than 1,100 episodes (and counting), Ash has traveled the world catching various Pokemon and battling countless other trainers. Whenever a new “Pokemon” game is released, Ash heads to the new region introduced in the game for a new story arc — although he remains perpetually 10 years old.
The films have generally aligned with the concurrent TV series and are understood to be a sort of side adventure in the shared universe. Because the movies assume audiences are familiar with this shared canon, they don’t always explain the backstory behind every detail.
Released in the U.S. in 1999, “Pokemon: The First Movie” takes place during the first TV series known as “Pokemon: Indigo League,” while Ash was traveling with human friends Misty and Brock as well as their Pokemon.
Though the film went on to earn more than $163 million worldwide and remains a beloved title among fans, it was not well received among U.S. critics.
“Great Japanese animation ‘Pokemon’ is not,” said The Times in its 1999 review of the movie.
But the “Pokemon” franchise never looked back.
The success of the first film led the immediate follow-ups to also be released theatrically in the U.S. through various distributors including Warner Bros. and Miramax. The sixth film in the series, “Pokemon: Jirachi — Wish Maker,” was the first to go straight to home video for its U.S. release. Subsequent films have been released in the U.S. through a mix of home media, TV broadcast and limited theatrical events. Every film has had an English-language release.
In recent years, it appears the franchise has been more open to considering different ways to reach both fans who have grown up with the series and those who are encountering it for the first time.
The 2016 mobile game “Pokemon Go” attracted all stripes of players, charming “Pokemon” novices, casual fans and experts alike into exploring a new way to experience the world.
2018 saw the release of “Pokemon: Let’s Go, Pikachu!” and “Let’s Go, Eevee!” — remakes of the first-generation “Pokemon” game “Pokemon Yellow,” updated for a new console and incorporating elements from the mobile game.
On the TV front, the latest series, which premiered in Japan timed to the release of the “Pokemon Sword” and “Shield” games last year, has shaken up the formula by featuring two lead protagonists and expanding their adventure to all the regions ever introduced instead of focusing on the setting of the latest game. It’s also the first to be overseen by someone other than Yuyama.
Even the movie series saw a reboot with 2017’s “Pokemon the Movie: I Choose You!” helmed by Yuyama. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the animated series, the director said he sought a story that would appeal to all generations of fans and revisited the moment that started it all: Ash meeting Pikachu.
Since then, the “Pokemon” films haven’t been tied to the continuity of the TV series. And now, with the Netflix release, they’ve gone back to the beginning.
Considering “Pokemon: The First Movie” has remained the franchise’s strongest performer in both the worldwide and Japanese box office, a remake trying to recapture that magic was, as Yuyama noted, inevitable.