Ash and Pikachu

A Guide to Pokémon Movies and Their Evolution Over the Years

The Pokémon franchise is universally beloved, just as much for its anime, merchandise, and feel-good nature as for the games themselves. Sure, Pokémon Red and Blue (or Green) kicked off a phenomenon 25 years ago that continues to this day, but now there are fans of the franchise who may never touch the game, yet fall in love with the Trading Card Game, anime, or everything that defines Pokémon in the eyes of many. This subdivides further with anime, with some never having watched the TV series but religiously watching Pokémon movies yearly.

The Pokémon movies are an interesting beast and can be categorized into different eras that are representative of the state of the movies and the wider franchise at the time of their release. With this guide we want to dive into this, discussing how Pokémon movies, and in turn, Pokémon, have evolved.

The Years of the Pokémon Phenomenon (Movies 1-3, 1998-2000)

  • Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back (1998)
  • Pokémon: The Movie 2000 – The Power of One (1999)
  • Pokémon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown (2000)

The end of the 1990s represented unabated Pokémania. After the initial release of the games in Japan in 1996 and their invasion stateside in 1998, no one was safe from the sensation that was Pocket Monsters, as every kid and their exacerbated parent was after every Game Boy game, trading card, plush toy, and anime VHS they could find.

The first Pokémon movie hit cinemas amidst this craze, releasing first on 18 July 1998 in Japan before releasing internationally on 10 November 1999. The movie was a self-contained story that introduced the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo. Having been created by Team Rocket’s Giovanni as a weapon, it escaped to a remote island where, under the guise of a Pokémon tournament, Mewtwo attempted to invite the best trainers to clone their Pokémon for revenge on humanity.

It’s a movie emblematic of the ambition the success of the franchise provided the creators. The film’s story touches on themes of the cycle of violence within Pokémon and has genuinely grand ambitions to tell a story beyond the scope of what was possible in the series, even if some of these ideas were toned down in the English release. And everything surrounding the film, from Ancient Mew Pokémon cards to Burger King promotions, was highly sought after.

The first trilogy of movies were major theatrical success stories inside and outside of Japan. The first movie’s expansive yet relatively complex (for the franchise) storyline was met with over 4 billion yen at the domestic box office and a then-record opening weekend for Warner Bros in the US before earning a cumulative $172,744,662 outside Japan.

Pokémon The Movie 2000
Pokémon The Movie 2000

For Pokémon The Movie 2000, the story took place during the Orange Islands storyline and saw Ash on a mission to save the world after the balance between the three Legendary Birds, Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres, is interrupted by a rogue Pokémon collector named Lawrence III attempting to capture Lugia. Alongside being one of the best films in the franchise to date, it showcased Pokémon’s pop-cultural power, with an English musical accompaniment album featuring everyone from Westlife and the B-52s to Weird Al Yankovic.

And who can forget the Donna Summer theme song ‘The Power of One’, which even made an unexpected appearance in the American political sphere?

While it made less than the first movie both at home and abroad, its star-studded soundtrack and its place as the highest-grossing domestic film in Japan reflect an unstoppable movie franchise at the top of its game.

Even as Pokémon 3: The Movie, centered on Entei and the Unown, marked the end of the movie’s box office success internationally as we saw a cooling of the Pokémania from the franchise’s early years, it was still a phenomenal success, and once again was the highest-grossing domestic film of the year in Japan.

What these three Pokémon movies represent is the unstoppable force of the franchise in these early years. Their storylines can be considered an attempt to find a replicable formula for future films while expanding on the world of Pokémon and bringing fans what they want: their favorite Pokémon on the big screen.

The Years of the Formula (Movies 4-9, 2001-2006)

  • Pokémon 4Ever: Celebi – Voice of the Forest (2001)
  • Pokémon Heroes: Latios and Latias (2002)
  • Jirachi—Wish Maker (2003)
  • Destiny Deoxys (2004)
  • Lucario and the Mystery of Mew (2005)
  • Pokémon Ranger and the Temple of the Sea (2006)
Pokémon 4Ever
Pokémon 4Ever

Following this, Pokémon movies found the formula that defined them for much of the early- and mid-2000s. This formula would see Ash and his friends encounter a legendary Pokémon on their journey that is under threat from hunters and evil forces who want to capture it for their own gain. The actions of Ash and his friends will save them and (sometimes) the world before things return to the status quo, just in time for the next episode of the TV show.

This overly simplistic Pokémon summary can to some extent describe the first three movies as well. While those movies deserve separate classification as a result of their success, it’s a formula that by this point had become cemented and unfortunately predictable from this point onwards, with this predictability hurting Pokemon 4Ever and the enchanting, somewhat beautiful story of Celebi.

Pokémon Heroes
Pokémon Heroes

This isn’t to make the argument that these movies are bad. Taking as examples Pokémon Heroes, the fifth movie in the franchise featuring Latios and Latias, and Jirachi: Wish Maker, featuring the titular character alongside Groudon, these are arguably stronger films than the early ones often held up in the eyes of those wearing nostalgia goggles.

With Pokémon Heroes, the last movie to feature the original cast of Ash, Brock, and Misty, the action was taken to a city known as Alto Mare, heavily inspired by Venice, Italy. The city is protected by Latios and Latias, with Ash meeting and becoming friends with the Latias when they disguise themselves as a girl named Bianca, the daughter of the curator of the city’s museum. Two agents named Annie and Oakley attempt to take control of the city and its defense mechanisms to capture the Soul Dew alongside these Pokémon for themselves, despite the risk it causes to the city being potentially flooded.

Alto Mare’s Italy-inspired setting sets it apart from others the characters have visited, while Bianca, Latias, and Ash form a rather cute love triangle. There are certainly issues with the development of the antagonists, but it’s the city of Alto Mare that makes this movie unique within the Pokémon chronology.

A Guide to Pokémon Movies and Their Evolution Over the Years
Pokémon: Jirachi: Wish Maker

Jirachi: Wish Maker, meanwhile, centers the Millennium Comet phenomenon that awakens Jirachi from a long slumber to absorb its energy, where it is captured and taken away from its home in Forina by a circus magician. Ash, May, Max, and Brock decide to help save Jirachi and bring it back to its home. A concerted effort is taken to integrate anime storylines like Team Magma and Misty’s departure from the team (in a heart-to-heart between Max and Ash) that benefits the movie and ties it to the series without becoming burdensome.

Overall, the formula does lead to a mixed turnout, hardly helped by a rocky transition away from cel animation and a greater reliance on CG. This occurred for the TV anime sooner, while movie 9, one of the weakest, Pokémon Ranger and the Temple of the Sea, was the last film produced in this traditional form.

The Years of the Pokémon Diamond and Pearl Trilogy (Movies 10-12, 2007-2009)

  • The Rise of Darkrai (2007)
  • Giratina and the Sky Warrior (2008)
  • Arceus and the Jewel of Life (2009)
Pokémon: The Rise of Darkrai
Pokémon: The Rise of Darkrai

The formula continued until we got to Diamond and Pearl. By this point, the Pokémon franchise was in a point of transition: Sinnoh represented a move for the games to the dual-screened Nintendo DS that brought in new fans, and with it an implementation of 3D into the series for the first time in a limited manner. The TV anime began a transition to 16:9 high definition over 4:3 standard definition, another part of the series’ gradual modernization.

It was a time when the franchise was open to change, perhaps best exemplified by the use of an interconnected story between films for the very first time. The result was a trilogy that feels unique within the broader range of Pokémon movies. There’s always a limit with just how ambitious your movie can be when you need to tell a complete story within 90 minutes, but stretch that to something three times that length? New opportunities open up.

Starting with Pokémon: The Rise of Darkrai, this grand story is centered on the legendary Pokémon of the Sinnoh region that ties into the creation of the Pokémon universe as we know it. The Sinnoh region introduced several legendary Pokémon including Arceus, a Pokémon that supposedly created all others and the universe itself. It also created Dialga and Palkia as guardians of time and space.

Each movie in the Diamond and Pearl trilogy told the story of Dialga and Palkia’s battle and the risk to the time-space continuum their fighting could bring about, although each movie can be enjoyed independently to some extent. Rise of Darkrai, for example, both establishes the dimension-ripping battle that would continue into future films, while also telling the story of the townsfolk of Alamos Town blaming disturbances caused by the dimension-ripping battle on the Pokémon Darkrai.

Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life
Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life

In the sequel, Pokémon: Giratina & the Sky Warrior, Giratina complicates their battle, but away from it we also have a perfectly respectable story about a researcher trying to weaponise the power of Giratina and the Reverse World. Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life brings a conclusion to this storyline, bringing the events of the previous entries in the trilogy into the context of Arceus’ phenomenal cosmic power, and how its awakening has brought about the events of previous films and must be stopped from exacting revenge.

The trilogy isn’t perfect. A decision not to fully embrace the idea of creating a single story across three movies stops this interconnected storyline from reaching its full potential as this story vies for time against self-contained storylines. By being unable to fully let go of the old formula, this bold step is hindered. Still, it is representative of the franchise’s march forwards, something later movies were, unfortunately, unable to match.

The Years of the Uninspired Pokémon Gaming Promotions (Movies 13-19, 2010-2016)

  • Zoroark—Master of Illusions (2010)
  • White—Victini and Zekrom & Black—Victini and Reshiram (2011)
  • Kyurem vs. the Sword of Justice (2012)
  • Genesect and the Legend Awakened (2013)
  • Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction (2014)
  • Hoopa and the Clash of Ages (2015)
  • Volcanion and the Mechanical Marvel (2016)
Pokémon: Kyurem vs The Sword of Justice
Pokémon: Kyurem vs The Sword of Justice

Pokémon movies in this era were… not good.

Pokémon movies have always been a promotional tool. They are intended to promote the Pokémon anime, which in itself is promotional for the games, with the movies designed to turn viewers into players. There’s a reason why people attending the movies in Japan are given Pokémon cards and event Pokémon for their games: it not only rewards people already invested in Pokémon, but creates FOMO that may encourage movie fans on the fence to give it a try.

Aside from the 9th movie, Pokémon Ranger and the Temple of the Sea, Pokémon movies were rarely direct tie-ins to video games or as blatant a promotional tool as they were in the years following this trilogy. Thanks to the advent of online events and patches for new Pokémon post-release, movies became a vehicle to introduce new species of Pokémon and legendaries whose existence was kept under wraps (aside from the occasional leak) until the lead-up to release.

Pokémon the Movie: Black - Victini and Reshiram
Pokémon the Movie: Black – Victini and Reshiram

Although not an example of the series’ introduction of new Pokémon through movies, the dual release of Pokémon the Movie: Black – Victini and Reshiram and White – Victini and Zekrom is a signifier of just what this era of Pokémon movies would come to represent. Just like we would see multiple Pokémon games released simultaneously with minor differences, two movies were released at the same time that told the same story with only minor differences. It was a move driven by greed and, even ignoring the confusion it brings, the story of Victini was mostly an uninteresting mess.

Starting with Pokémon The Movie: Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction, the legendary Pokémon centering the movie was revealed during the movie’s promotion and released via online distribution. Despite Pokémon X and Y being released in late 2013, Diancie was revealed in Japanese magazine Corocoro in the movie’s promotional material and made available in the game shortly after.

A new directive to keep the center Pokémon in a positive central light, this difference in approach actually hurt the films both critically and commercially. With box office returns declining, something had to change. Thankfully, it did.

The Years of the Blue Ocean Strategy (Movies 20-23, 2017-present)

  • I Choose You! (2017)
  • The Power of Us (2018)
  • Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution (2019)
  • Secrets of the Jungle (2020)
Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You!
Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You!

The Pokémon TV anime was also stagnating in the 2010-2016 era. Everything about the franchise was feeling a little stale, in fact, even the games and their gym bade-Elite Four structure. With this in mind, Pokémon Sun and Moon formed the cornerstone of a major revitalization of the franchise.

For the games, a new setting and story structure focused more on telling a character-driven story while removing gyms entirely. For the TV anime, new designs for Ash and co. simplified the look of the series. While controversial at the time, it allowed for more fluid animation and resulted in some of the most impressive sequences of animation the series has ever seen, such as the viral baseball episode. Seriously, it’s superb!

The formula driving almost every movie before this point was ripped apart. Pokémon movies were now divorced from the TV anime and into an alternate timeline, giving staff the freedom to experiment with new animation styles, storylines, and creative talent who could each put their spin on this iconic world and characters. It’s the idea that has also driven web series like Pokémon Twilight Wings. This is the current era of Pokémon movies, and despite mixed results, is easily the most exciting they have been since their induction.

In 2017, as opposed to creating a movie based on the Alola region, the team decided to take the opportunity provided by the 20th anniversary of the TV anime to create a reimagining of the opening episodes of the original series. Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You isn’t a strict retelling, but we nevertheless are allowed the opportunity to witness Ash Ketchum’s first moments with his partner Pokémon Pikachu in a never-before-seen way.

A Guide to Pokémon Movies and Their Evolution Over the Years
Pokémon The Movie: I Choose You!

Reactions to the diverged retelling were mixed, with many not happy about the changes made as Ash goes to search for Ho-Oh. Regardless of what you thought, however, this film was a turning point even outside of the content itself.

The release of I Choose You coincided with an intense push to bring Pokémon movies back to theaters outside of Japan. I Choose You premiered in France at Japan Expo ahead of its Japanese theatrical release, and large showings were planned in various countries around the world, including the US and various nations in Europe that helped the movie bring in a respectable international haul of over $7 million. Importantly, Pokémon movies had thrown away their image as being only for kids or cash-ins.

A Guide to Pokémon Movies and Their Evolution Over the Years
Pokémon: The Power of Us

Pokémon: The Power of Us took this one step further. Here, alongside animation produced internally at OLM, WIT Studio was brought on board for this film. For the first time for a Pokémon movie, Kunihiko Yuyama would not direct the film, with responsibility being transferred to Tetsuo Yajima. Many of the staff working on this movie had new roles, with character designs being handled by Shizue Kaneko.

The film is set in Fula City, founded in a barren land granted the power of wind by Lugia. The film follows multiple characters, including Ash and those who live in or are visiting the city for a festival. A movie attempting to explore interweaving and interconnecting stories in a new setting like this had never been attempted by the Pokémon franchise before, but it managed to give the space needed for all of these storylines to thrive. It remains one of the most critically well-received films in the franchise.

It’s not perfect and has heavily relied on nostalgia. While unrelated in story, The Power of Us heavily harkens back to Pokémon The Movie 2000 alongside featuring Lugia, while I Choose You is a reimagining of the series origins. The next movie was a remake of the first-ever Pokémon movie in the first foray into CGI for the series with Pokémon: Mewtwo Strikes Back Evolution. A very poor remake, to be frank.

The COVID-delayed movie Pokémon: Secrets of the Jungle breaks from this nostalgic basis and is the most recent film released at the time of writing, having hit Japanese theaters on Christmas Day 2020 ahead of a 2021 international release.

A List of All Pokemon Movies

Looking for the TL;DR version? If all you need is a list of all the Pokémon movies until today, here they are:

1998Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back
1999Pokémon: The Movie 2000 – The Power of One
2000Pokémon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown
2001Pokémon 4Ever: Celebi – Voice of the Forest
2002Pokémon Heroes: Latios and Latias
2003Jirachi—Wish Maker
2004Destiny Deoxys
2005Lucario and the Mystery of Mew
2006Pokémon Ranger and the Temple of the Sea
2007The Rise of Darkrai
2008Giratina and the Sky Warrior
2009Arceus and the Jewel of Life
2010Zoroark—Master of Illusions
2011White—Victini and Zekrom & Black—Victini and Reshiram
2012Kyurem vs. the Sword of Justice
2013Genesect and the Legend Awakened
2014Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction
2015Hoopa and the Clash of Ages
2016Volcanion and the Mechanical Marvel
2017I Choose You!
2018The Power of Us
2019Mewtwo Strikes Back: Evolution
2020Secrets of the Jungle

Pokémon Movies: Always in Flux

The modern direction of these films is emblematic of the new exciting state of Pokémon games after years of repetition, where we can see the franchise’s openness to change in games like the upcoming open-world Pokémon Legends: Arceus. This is all while ignoring the one Pokémon movie released outside the animated movie cycle, the Hollywood live-action Detective Pikachu film, a movie that is enjoyable and different within this malleable and rapidly expanding Pokéverse.

Where Pokémon movies will go from here is impossible to guess. But Pokémon movies today are exciting due to their unpredictability, so maybe that’s a good thing. Who knows… the best may be yet to come.

The Pokémon Company
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