Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 13th 2011
Pokemon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life
It's another day and another new land for Ash and his peripatetic pokémon pals. They arrive in the land of Michina fresh and full of vinegar, looking to test their dueling skills. Michina is a beautiful agricultural village surrounded by nature and decidedly friendly by nature. They soon fall in with Sheena, a priestess with the ability to link minds with pokémon. No sooner have they than Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina, three legendary pokémon of immense power, start running amuck. It seems there's a disturbance in the force (or the fabric of space-time if you prefer) and it has to do with the awakening of Arceus, another legendary pokémon who was cruelly betrayed when Sheena's ancestor Damos refused to return the Jewel of Life, and the life-force contained within, to him. Faster than you can say paradox Ash and his buds are hurled back in time to sort the mess out. But can they? Can Pikachu shoot lighting bolts from his butt?
"I am pokémon, creator of worlds." With Arceus, the pokémon finally reach the realm of godhood. (What else do you call and all-powerful being that must be appeased to avert disaster?) The film he is in, on the other hand, is anything but divine.
Neither is it infernal. What it is, is another Pokémon movie. An essentially good-natured slice of thoroughly disposable entertainment built around an impeccable message of cooperation, peace and acceptance. It is totally inoffensive, reliably entertaining, and completely forgettable. In short, the exact same thing Pokémon movies have been since they were spawned back in the twilight of the previous century. You can expect Ash and his friends to make new friends, that those friends will have big troubles, and that Ash and company will help resolve them with spunk, teamwork, and the occasional lightning bolt. Powers will clash, spectacular destruction will be wreaked, no one will die and everything will be returned to normal by film's end. After which a neat moral will be placed atop the whole recycled heap and Ash and his friends will be on their way to another land and another adventure. Whether that sounds like a promise or a threat to you will determine whether this is something you want to watch.
If anything in this film surprises you, then either you've never watched Pokémon, in which case you'll be completely lost (prior knowledge of the characters and their pokémon is essential) and shouldn't be watching in the first place, or the surprise part of your brain was damaged by the Pikachu shock-therapy you've been undergoing and you should probably seek help. With one exception. The sheer beauty of the film will come as a surprise to even the healthiest, best-watched Pokémon fan out there. Michina is an agricultural wonderland of swaying cornfields and crystal rivers, surrounded by artistically aged ruins and gorgeous green vistas. Photorealistic CGI brings life to its provincial charms while intricately inked backgrounds give it breadth and beauty. And that's the cheap part of the film. When the space-time bubbles and streamers of fire start flying, then the true extent of Arceus's budget becomes clear. CG waterspouts stretch into the sky, violet holes open up in reality, and poké-powers raze ruins to the ground in flawlessly executed explosions of dust and rubble. Tumbling waterfalls of molten silver are given textured CG surfaces and the Jewel of Life is lent a depth and shifting color that makes the battles fought over it seem pretty plausible. Even Sheena's mind-linking is dressed up in morphing auras of squirming multicolored light. The patchwork score, for its part, is an appropriate and occasionally stirring if not entirely worthy match for the visuals. On a purely technical level this is by far the best that Pokémon has to offer—certainly light-years beyond what its bargain-basement television incarnations could deliver.
Which makes the retention of their bargain-basement character designs that much worse. Not that the animators had any choice; they couldn't completely redesign the cast after all. Still, the contrast between the television series' two-dimensional designs, with their simple eyes and spiky cliché-hair, and the film's fully-realized three-dimensional world is jarring. The goony pokémon designs don't fit in very well either. The disjuncture has a habit of pulling us away from the film's spectacle, which, given its dearth of imagination, isn't a good thing.
That's hardly Arceus's biggest problem, however. The film's target demographic (Pokémon fans) isn't going to be fazed by something that they've come to fully expect from their favorite franchise. They'll simply be happy that there are so many more pretty pictures than usual. The pathetically truncated (and pointless) role that Team Rocket plays will be a far bigger sticking point. As will all of the alternate-dimension, disruption of the space-time continuum nonsense. It's too generic and senseless to be of much interest to older, more sci-fi oriented fans and will fly straight over the heads of the little 'uns, at best making them restless as the film bogs down in technobabble and at worst actively frustrating them as it attacks them with concepts that they can't possibly understand.
This is a Vizkids DVD, which means a DVD stripped to its barest essentials: one film, no extras, single audio track (okay, two if you count the two-channel and 5.1-channel English audio mixes). Viz's dub hits the right notes, and while there's no way to know for sure without the Japanese track for comparison, it seems unlikely that it's missing any of the original's meaning or impact. The decision to make Arceus a talking pokémon was a dubious one, but judging from the way he interacts with the people around him it seems that it was the film's decision, not Viz's.
Being a Vizkids release of course also means it is aimed at kids. Like its many progenitors before it, Arceus provides enough action, color, and movement to hypnotize most children. Whether you want it hypnotizing your children is naturally another matter. It's harmless, so long as you discount the gotta-catch-'em-all commercialism and occasional weird polytheistic undercurrent, and has some laudable things to say about the power of the human will to better the world. It's also mindless, kind of lumpy, and afflicted with a stop-and-go pace that has a lot to do with the big ideas it tries to foist off on its little viewers. Truthfully, you're better off plunking them down in front of Kiki's Delivery Service. Hint, hint.
Overall (dub) : B-
Story : C-
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B
+ Pretty. Very, very pretty. Also totally harmless.
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