On Saturday, December 8, 2012, Cartoon Network premiered the 15th Pokémon movie, Pokémon the Movie: Kyurem vs. the Sword of Justice. There was no theatrical showing this year, as there was for last year’s movie, Pokémon the Movie White: Victini and Zekrom, which had a limited run in theaters on December 3-4, 2011 and which I reviewed here last year. The new one is quite short, at least as seen on CN in a 90-minute time slot with commercials. I timed the movie at approximately 67 minutes. I’m not sure of the original running time in Japan, so I don’t know if anything was cut for this showing. I guess I’ll have to wait till my local Japanese video store gets the Japanese DVD in order to find out. The Wikipedia page for this film lists an original running time of 99 minutes, although that would most likely have included the Pikachu short that ran with it. Those usually run only about 23 minutes or so, making it likely that there were still cuts in the film when it ran on CN.
In any event, I would like to have seen this on the big screen, where I’ve seen six of the 15 annual Pokémon movies so far. The imagery in it, as in so many of the recent Pokémon movies, is quite spectacular and represents some of the best artwork being done in 2-D animation today. The Pokémon movie animators tend to base their settings on real world locations and have set this story in what looks like the Pacific Northwest. Roshan City, the destination of Ash Ketchum and his friends, is a gleaming, modernist paradise nestled in the mountains. I’m guessing it’s based on Seattle, although I haven’t been able to confirm that. They take a classic passenger train to get there and it travels through a thick coniferous forest on the way. Once in the city itself, we see a sprawling, gleaming mall and glistening towers and, during one chase scene, a journey through unused subway tunnels that ends in a breathtaking railroad museum.
Much of the action, though, takes place at an abandoned mining facility high up in a mountain far from the city and accessible only by an unused railroad bridge. The opening battle between Keldeo, a young Colt Pokémon, and Kyurem, a powerful Dragon Pokémon, takes place there and the action returns there for a final showdown between the same two creatures, this time with Ash and his traveling companions, Iris and Cilan (and their Pokémon), as witnesses. The aftermath of the first battle finds Keldeo damaged and humiliated while his mentors, three Legendary Pokémon known as the Swords of Justice, have been frozen in place by Kyurem, leaving Keldeo to flee towards Roshan City. He lands on the train carrying Ash and company and they quickly adopt his cause, just as the monstrous Kyurem arrives to pursue them all, landing on the train but forced to leap off when it enters a narrow mountain tunnel. Taking up the chase in the city, Kyurem employs an army of metal snowflake-shaped creatures called Cryogonals who pursue and harass Keldeo and send Ash and his friends into the city’s subway tunnels for shelter. (No sign of Officer Jenny anywhere, however.) Eventually, Iris and Cilan act as decoys, one in a blimp and the other in a train, to lure away the pursuers while Ash and Keldeo, accompanied by Ash’s Pokémon sidekick, Pikachu, hide out in the forest and make their way back to the mountain to try to free Keldeo’s mentors, Cobalion, Terrakion, and Virizion. Only when Keldeo calls on his inner powers can he summon the energy and strength to become a Sword of Justice himself and properly challenge Kyurem.
The big problem with this movie is that I never had any idea who the Swords of Justice were, what they did, where they lived, and why we should care about them. What kind of interactions with the human world do they have? Who are their opponents? Who do they help? Are they in some kind of alternate universe? Why did Keldeo want to become one of them? What possible good would it do him? None of this is explained adequately, at least in the version aired on Cartoon Network. If there were cut scenes that explained all this, then it was foolish not to show them. As a result, I never understood Keldeo’s purpose nor did I care what happened to him. If I had a young Pokémon fan I could turn to for assistance, I might know more, but my daughter, nephews, nieces and their friends are all grown now, so I don’t have anyone I can turn to for help in decoding this stuff anymore. (My daughter compared Keldeo, somewhat derisively, to My Little Pony.) Had I seen this in a theater, I could have questioned audience members, but that opportunity was denied to me this time.
I also found Ash’s decision to help Keldeo to be more abrupt than usual. Granted, Ash always helps the underdog because that’s what he does in these movies, whether there’s a rhyme or reason to it or not. At one point, there is this exchange of dialogue:
Keldeo: “Why are you doing this for me?”
Ash: “Because we’re friends.”
Ash: “And besides, you’re a blast to be around.”
Which should raise some red flags among readers with some familiarity with Pokémon lore. Pokémon aren’t supposed to talk, remember? Yet Keldeo and his mentors, the Swords of Justice, not to mention Kyurem as well, are all able to talk—telepathically! And they don’t shut up for long either. I liked it better when they just uttered their names over and over again. “Pika! Pika! Pika-CHU!”
In any event, by this point in the story, there really hasn’t been enough time for Ash and Keldeo to have bonded as friends. And Keldeo was initially quite hostile to Ash and his companions. In fact, Kyurem was attacking them and chasing them almost from the moment Keldeo showed up on their train. In Ash’s world, I guess, that might qualify as a “blast,” but I would expect a “friendship” to be a little less strenuous than that. In last year’s movie, the whole backstory of Victini, the People of the Vale and the competing dragon Pokémon was explained in depth and we got to understand the characters’ motivations and conflicts and why Ash and his friends felt the need to get involved.
Kyurem is a Dragon Pokémon himself and is somehow related to Reshiram and Zekrom from last year’s movie. He is said to have their powers and to be even stronger than them. It’s not clear what he gains from battling little Keldeo and the final battle action is not terribly convincing.
I have to confess that I found this movie disappointing when compared to the last three: Pokémon the Movie White: Victini and Zekrom, Pokémon the Movie: Zoroark, Ruler of Illusions, and Pokémon the Movie: Arceus and the Jewel of Life, all of which combined rousing narratives with imaginative designs and spectacular animation. Iris and Cilan don’t have much to do here other than run around acting as back-up for Ash. Team Rocket is glimpsed only briefly in blink-or-you’ll-miss-them long-shot cameos. Keldeo is really the only significant supporting character here and I found him one of the least compelling such characters in a Pokémon movie in many years.
This is the second movie spun off from the “Black and White” arc of the Pokémon TV series (called “Best Wishes” in Japan). Last year’s movie was the first. I suspect that next year’s movie will represent a new story arc and offer some new characters. Let’s hope they fashion a more exciting storyline for them.