(Almost) every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. Last week: Pokémon Detective Pikachu represents the first time that the beloved video game animals called Pokémon have appeared in "live-action", by means of photo-realistic CGI. But it is emphatically not the first time they've been the stars of a feature film.

Talking properly about Pokémon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back is so weird that I've already screwed it up. Because there are three different incarnations of the thing, and if I refer to it as Pokémon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back, I'm already speaking about a different thing than Pokémon: The First Movie. Basically, there's a 75-minute feature film. And there's a 10-minute prologue. And there's a 21-minute short film that's unrelated to the other 85 minutes. The theatrical release in both Japan and the rest of the world had the 21-minute short and the 75-minute feature, the home video version in Japan had the 10-minute prologue and the 75-minute feature edited together, and the 21-minute short as a separate object, and there's never been an official English-friendly release with the prologue edited to the feature, though it was made available as a second special feature on the American DVD, at least.

So anyway, the thing I'm looking at, and calling Pokémon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back, is the 85-minute edit, and I watched in Japanese, and I shall accordingly be causing many of you with childhood memories of the Pokémon franchise to develop an uncontrollable eye twitch as I insist on referring to "Satoshi" and "Kasumi" instead of "Ash" and "Misty". But you see, I do not have childhood memories of this movie or the television series it's spun-off from, or the video game that television series was created to promote. And unarmed with those memories, it turns out that Pokémon: The First Movie is a bit of a nasty sluggish thing to get through. Insofar as anything that moves at breakneck speed through just 85 minutes can possibly be called "sluggish".

Honestly, though, for about the first 18 minutes, I was definitely onboard with a much different movie than any of my knowledge about the Pokémon media universe had led me to anticipate. The first act sketches out a gloomy, morally complicated world in which an overreaching scientist, Dr. Fuji (Akimoto Yosuke), is working on a process for cloning Pokémon - the friendly monsters populating the world and bonding with human "trainers" to engage in pitched battles - as a means of cloning his own dead daughter. His great success comes in the form of creating an artificial version of the world's rarest Pokémon, a catlike species called Mew (exceedingly prolific voice actor Yamadera Koichi provides the Mew's namesake squeak); the synthetic Mew is an almost humanoid creature called Mewtwo (Ichimura Masachika), which can communicate telepathically with other beings, both human and Pokémon. This is how it can reach outside of its isolation pod to bring together not just a pair of other Pokémon clones, but also Ambertwo (Hikami Kyoko) Fuji's artifically-reborn daughter. These new friends aren't going to be around for very long; their clone bodies fail, and Fuji puts Mewtwo into an induced coma to erase his memories. Something like a decade later, Mewtwo fully matures, wakes up, and realising that het's nothing but a bio-weapon in the hands of mad scientists, destroys the laboratory and frees himself to go into a human world that he views as unremittingly hostile to the Pokémon that it exploits.

So far, so anime: it's little surprise that Warner Bros., distributing the film in most of the West, decided that this was a bit too much for the franchise's target audience of children, but it's pretty commanding stuff. Mewtwo's anguish at his lack of self, and his righteous rage manifesting itself as destructive power, are well-handled, with all the overcooked emotions and sci-fi spritualism you'd demand out of a story that is, essentially, "Ghost in the Shell for Young Folk". The imagery follows suit, with everything favoring darkness and dramatic skewed angles of angry-looking metal doors and walls; it is a heavy, gloomy, aggressive opening, full of rage and despair, with Ichimura's line readings lashing out with tangible pain. A bit overdone, all in all, but overdone in the kind of melodramatic, operatic register that these kinds of stories traffic in.

Then the title swings into view, and immediately after, we're in a brightly-lit comedy. The whiplash is way too much; it's not that I object to a Pokémon movie being bubbly and fun, so much as that object to any movie trying to switch tones so hard in such a brief window of time. And it would probably be okay, except that The First Movie will keep trying to switch tones over and over again: from light comedy to adventure, from adventure to mindless action, from mindless action to... whatever the hell those last five minutes are. I mean, the one thing that the last five minutes definitely are, are a lazy undo button leading directly into a sequel hook, or at least the promise for a mild shift to the status quo of the TV show. It's an explicable final beat, but also a deeply annoying, unsatisfying one, making a joke out of whatever actual shape this very bizarrely shapeless movie tries to possess.

At any rate, the second phase of the movie centers on three friends and Pokémon trainers, Satoshi (Matsumoto Rica), Kasumi (Iizuka Mayumi), and Takeshi (Ueda Yuji), and Satoshi's foremost Pokémon familiar, an exceptionally capable Pikachu (Otani Ikue, who with nothing but variations on the word "pika" gives the film its warmest, most emotional, and cutest performance). Who they are and what their deal is, are issues left in the background, and that's to say nothing of their relationship with Musashi (Hayashibara Megumi) and Kojiro (Miki Shin-ichiro), the antagonistic Pokémon trainers of Team Rocket, who are accompanied by a talking cat Pokémon (Inuyama Inuko), characters who are so barely introduced that one must simply assume that they're the bad guys given that the movie seems to find it amusing when they fail. Obviously, this is all because The First Movie has no interest in being viewed as a standalone object: theatrical release or not, this is obviously extra-long episode of a TV series, and nothing more.

That leaves it with some very ragged arcs: Satoshi has something happen to him, though I'd be hard-pressed to explain what it is, and Mewtwo transforms from being a tragic anti-hero to a mad villain while he's off-screen. Basically, what happens is that Mewtwo is trying to eradicate Pokémon trainers and human-friendly Pokémon, and this is all explained very abruptly in the break between "adventure" and "mindless action", leading to the spectacle of a movie in which everybody agrees that violence solves nothing and animal fights are probably not a great thing, and in which the last 20 minutes are also non-stop animal fight scenes.

It's a bit dull to watch, frankly; I can't even say it assumes emotional connections to the characters I don't have, since emotion doesn't really appear to be an active concern of the movie in the first place. It's just a whole bunch of busy-looking stuff, with people routinely shouting the names of various Pokémon species right as the camera cuts to a member of that species. I would probably be at least slightly kinder to all of this if it wasn't coming off of that tremendously moody, grim opening; we know that the makers of this film are capable of something slightly more grand-scale than "the video game commercial, but this time in 1.85:1 instead of 1.33:1". They're just not interested in actually doing it.

Meanwhile, the look of the film is... adequate? By the standards of Japanese television animation in the 1990s, especially for children, it's pretty great-looking. By the standards of Japanese theatrical animation in the 1990s, it could be a hell of a lot better. The human characters tend to have one expression each (Satoshi has three), and mouths that possess exactly two positions, open or closed. They strike a lot of poses and move only one or two frames in between those poses. Standard budget-conscious stuff, basically, not worth getting too upset about; at least the Pokémon themselves are adorably-designed and well-executed (much as Pikachu is the vocal highlight of the film, it is also the most charming thing to look at). Still, for the film that remains, 20 years later, the highest-grossing anime film in North American history, one would long for there to be at least any artistry. During those 20 years, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, and Paprika all had reasonably well-marketed releases, is what I'm saying. It's obviously not fair to expect Pokémon: The First Movie to be competing on the level of Miyazaki Hayao or Kon Satoshi, but it's also not inaccurate to point out that it sure as hell isn't close to any of those. It's just bubbly, manic cinema for fanboyish children, and I suppose it's good at that, but it's just not a very impressive thing to be good at.