There have been a lot (and I mean a lot) of Pokémon movies over the years, but perhaps none of them have had quite the same impact as the very first one. Originally released in 1998, Pokémon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back holds a special place in the hearts of many fans, having been released at the peak of Pokémon's burgeoning popularity. Now, more than two decades later, The Pokémon Company is revisiting the film that started it all with Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution, a full CGI remake of the original movie that recently made its English language debut on Netflix. Is this trip down memory lane worth taking for diehard Pokémon fans, or does this Evolution fail to pass muster?
The plot of Mewtwo Strikes Back probably needs no introduction, but as a quick refresher: the film is focused on the creation of Mewtwo, an artificial being that was born using the DNA of Mew, said to be the progenitor of all Pokémon. Questioning the meaning behind its own existence after being used for nefarious purposes by the sinister Team Rocket, Mewtwo escapes confinement and finds solace on a remote island, where it plots vengeance against humanity. Soon after, Pokémon's perennial protagonist Ash Ketchum and his companions, Misty and Brock, are invited to participate in a tournament on Mewtwo's island. When they arrive, they soon discover that it is a trap and that the legendary Pokémon is seeking to destroy humans and the Pokémon that are loyal to them. Ultimately, this leads to an epic confrontation, with Ash and company caught in the crossfire between Mew and Mewtwo.
Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution is, on a storytelling front, a slavish recreation of the original film. Other than a few expanded action sequences (which largely feel superfluous), the movie is a beat-for-beat retread, recycling shots and iconic moments from the 1998 release, albeit with a gussied-up CGI coat of paint. Everything you remember from The First Movie has been faithfully preserved here, although I do wish a few more of the vocal tracks from the original release had made it in: the melodramatic final battle doesn't have quite the same nostalgic impact without "Brother My Brother" playing in the background.
Really, what is going to make or break the experience for fans is the new animation style. For the most part, Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution looks great. The film's environments in the early segments are lush and full of detail, and the Pokémon themselves look fantastic, especially during the film's many fight scenes. However, the uncanny effect starts to creep in when it comes to the human characters. Ash, Brock, Misty and company all closely resemble their anime counterparts to a tee, and unfortunately this makes them stand out a lot more when contrasted with the way the Pokémon are animated, almost like there are two different clashing art styles. Another problem is the lighting, which is consistently dark and dreary when the party reaches Mewtwo's island. Granted, this may be accurate to the source material to some extent, but the original film's 2D animation had a distinctly brighter color palette. The new animation style rendering everything in gloomy purple has the unfortunate side effect of making everything look and feel desaturated. I also have to stress that some of the expanded sequences don't add a whole lot to the film. Team Rocket was already an established threat in the Pokémon universe, but did we really need a shot of Rocket Grunts at a rally flanked by banners adorned with their logo, like we're watching a Leni Riefenstahl film? Does the journey to Mewtwo's island really need to be longer? Your mileage may vary, but these seem unnecessarily garish compared to the original film.
I watched Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution in English and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the dub. For the most part, the film uses the new Pokémon anime voice cast, with Sarah Natochenny, Michele Knotz, and Bill Rogers filling in for Ash, Misty, and Brock. While I'll always have a soft spot for the original cast, the new actors do a fine job. It's also really exciting to hear Dan Green voicing the legendary Mewtwo. The actor (who is perhaps best known for his role as Yugi in the Yu-Gi-Oh! animated series, and previously voiced Mewtwo in the animated special Mewtwo Returns) does phenomenal work as the mighty psychic Pokémon, perfectly capturing its anguish, fury, and ultimate acceptance of its place in the world. I've been a huge fan of Green for years, and it's great that he's still getting work. Ted Lewis (Tracey from Pokémon and Bakura from Yu-Gi-Oh!) also makes an appearance as Giovanni, Team Rocket's villainous leader, and he's a lot of fun. Of course, the various Pokémon cries and sounds are well done, especially during Pikachu's big moment towards the end of the film. You know the one.
Ultimately, I'm torn on this one. Unlike the title character, Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution really does little to justify its own existence: the film is so committed to pandering to fans of the original that it's almost less interesting for it. It is a serviceable nostalgia romp for hardcore fans, but I can't in good conscience recommend this remake over the original movie. Still, I can see these CGI remakes becoming a trend going forward, so I suppose I had best prepare for the inevitable announcement of The Power of One: Evolution sometime in the near future. If there's one thing Pokémon can consistently be relied upon for, it's catering to those who grew up with it.