Pokemon 3: The Movie turns 20 years old today, and if you’re thinking “that can’t be right…” it is, you’re just old. Don’t worry, I am too. In fact, Pokemon 3: The Movie actually first came out in July 2000, but it didn’t reach the West until 2001, so yes – our childhoods are firmly behind us. Pokemon 3 has always been my favourite film in the franchise though, so as it leaves its teen years behind, I’d like to take a moment to talk about why.
Most people probably think of Pokemon 3 as a Entei movie, in the same way the first movie is a Mewtwo movie and the second one is a Lugia movie. But that’s not really true – Pokemon 3 is an Unown movie, and that’s part of the reason I think it’s worth remembering, even if its 22 out of 100 on Metacritic and generally lukewarm reception within the fanbase labels it as forgettable. I have never ran an Unown in my team, and that’s largely because it’s one of the most technically garbage Pokemon ever conceived. It’s up there with Castform for ‘this is so bad I don’t even want to play with it ironically’, but unlike Castform, Unown is so narratively interesting that I want to see more stories about it. Pokemon 3 only scratched the surface, but considering the anime and games have barely even done that since, Pokemon 3’s decision to focus on the Unown saga only makes the film seem more important 20 years on. Without it, the Unown potential would have been squandered completely, instead of only being mostly squandered as it is right now.
Unown (it’s pronounced un-own rather than unknown, despite how daft that seems) are essentially Pokemon hieroglyphics, and they resemble the 26 letters of our alphabet, plus the ? and ! symbols. They’re tangentially linked to the mythology of the Gold & Silver games, but every entry since has mostly ignored them. That’s probably because they were very unpopular, but that’s mostly because people tried to battle with them. That’s to be expected – it’s what Pokemon games are about – but just because Unown can’t be applied effectively in battle doesn’t mean they should be written off. There’s so much we don’t know about Pokemon’s world, and Unown could teach us – but until they get more spotlight, they won’t be able to.
In Pokemon 3 (full name: Pokémon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Unown: Entei), the Unown are semi-unwitting antagonists, controlling one of the characters’ minds until they astral project her deepest wishes into reality, taking the metaphorical shape of a legendary Pokemon; namely Entei. This is way more interesting than most Pokemon plots and actually tries to weave the ‘mons into the wider storytelling, rather than revolving around the basic catching, hunting, or battling arcs that the games are forced into and movies often mimic.
This is why I proclaim Pokemon 3 as the best Pokemon movie. I’m not even sure it’s my favourite Pokemon movie personally, and one glance at the ratings of critics and fans alike reveal that it’s no darling there either. But while a lot of the rest just feel like overlong anime episodes that revolve around legendaries (The Rise of Darkrai or Hoopla and the Clash of Ages being the worst offenders), Pokemon 3 doesn’t just rely on the big name Pokemon to drive the plot along with increasingly dull set pieces, it takes a Pokemon with a complex story to tell and uses the feature length runtime to tell that tale expertly.
It’s not like all that many of Pokemon’s movies – almost 20 of them now – have reviewed exceptionally well either. For the record, Detective Pikachu is not a Pokemon movie; it’s a movie with Pokemon in it. I love it, but it exists in a very different stratosphere to Pokemon movies, so it can’t oust Pokemon 3 as the best Pokemon movie, even though yes, it is a better film.
Pokemon 3 is probably the last time the ‘Charizard saves the day’ trope has some weight to it, and within the complexities of the Unown story there’s a somewhat heartfelt but mostly bland tale of family abandonment and reunion, but I’m not here to argue it’s the greatest film of all time. On its 20th birthday though, it’s worth remembering that it stood up for Unown, one of the most disrespected and misused Pokemon in the franchise’s entire history. Thank you Pokemon 3, for caring about Unown when nobody else would.
Next: Fortree City Needs The Pokemon Let’s Go Treatment
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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