Let's face it, Pokémon has never been a great anime; its messy premise has always better served the mechanics of a video game than the plot of a cartoon. But regardless of format, it's the sense of almost mundane exploration in a big wide Pokémon world that makes the franchise memorable. While the heroes of "Dragonball Z" and "Gundam Wing" were tasked with saving humanity, Pokémon's cartoon protagonist Ash Ketchum was often barely competent, just trying to make any sort of mark as he explored the wilderness.
Ash didn't even advance to the finals in the Indigo League Championships that wrapped up the show's first story arc. That was a bold anticlimax for a property then in its heyday, with kids around the world still in the throes of Poké-mania. Through his shortcomings, IRL Pokémon trainers working to master the game could see themselves in Ash -- not the center of the Pokémon universe, but rather a tiny part of it.
With the Pokémon movies, this down-to-Earth spirit is thrown out the window. These Pikachu pictures are mostly designed to showcase whichever godlike legendary Pokémon is the catch of the day. With unintelligible "epic" plots devoid of any discernible meaning, many of the Pokémon movies are insufferable to all but the most devoted Pokémon fans. Let me break down how 90% of these movies go.
The narrator explains what Pokémon are. Ash has a Pokémon battle set to inspirational pop music which spans the gamut from fun dance tracks and '80s power ballads to more Christian-rock-adjacent fare. This is often the best part of the movie.
Ash meets a legendary Pokémon from a recent or upcoming Pokémon game. Another legendary Pokémon shows up to fight the first one. Everything wraps up exactly as it was at the start of the movie so as not to affect the anime.
In what felt at times like some sort of performance-art endurance piece, I've watched all 22 of these movies, and I'm here to give you the rundown on the good, the bad, and the pur-ugly.
22. "Hoopa and the Clash of Ages" (2015)
This was supposed to be the "Destroy All Monsters" of Pokémon movies. It unites many of the legendary Pokémon from the Advanced Generation through to X&Y and shows off their mega-evolved forms in a battle royale. But this clash was more nap-inducing than marvelous. The bejeweled genie Hoopa also wins the award for most annoying legendary Pokémon of all time -- even for a Pokémon, Hoopa seems really dumb.
21. "Pokémon Heroes: Latios and Latias" (2002)
This one starts strong with a fun aquatic race between Ash, Misty and a bunch of other trainers in a pretty well designed Venetian-looking city, Alto Mare. Things quickly descend into the usual "bad guys wanna catch the legendary Pokémon" tropes, and I just couldn't keep my eyes open. This was one of the last Pokémon movies released in theaters in the states and was a real box office bomb. After trying to watch it, I can see why.
20. "Giratina and the Sky Warrior" (2008)
When it came out, this was definitely the Pokémon movie that made me want to stop watching Pokémon movies. The Sky Warrior here is Shaymin -- a leafy hedgehog that can absorb pollution, it's one of my personal favorite legendaries -- but this movie did not do the creatures justice. We mostly just get blobs of color moving through sloppily rendered CG dimensions. Legendary Pokémon Giratina, a large demonic dinosaur, just looks too awkward to fly or even move in animation, and this is a complaint that could be made against a lot of the legendary Pokémon of the Diamond and Pearl era.
19. "Genesect and the Legend Awakened" (2013)
This one revolves around a bunch of scientists using ancient DNA to resurrect Pokémon, and if you've watched any of these movies, that's a pretty familiar-sounding plot. The writers at least seem self-aware about it, because Mewtwo is a feature player here himself. (Or should I say herself? In "Pokémon: The First Movie," Mewtwo is voiced by Jay Goede, but in this appearance she's voiced by the distinctly female-sounding Miriam Pultrow. It makes sense -- legendary Pokémon are often referred to as genderless, and Mewtwo communicates psychically, so it could change its voice at any time.) Most of this movie involves five of the legendary steel-bug types Genesect rampaging through New Tork City, an Epcot-style utopia which was built on top of their former home. It's kind of sad to watch the Genesect looking for their home, which hasn't existed for millions of years. Other than that, this movie's pretty boring.
18. "The Rise of Darkrai" (2007)
The Diamond and Pearl era of Pokémon was a great one, a return to form after the "Tron"-style designs of the generation that preceded it. But the movies from that period suffer from some really plastic-looking animation. "The Rise of Darkrai" has a "don't judge a book by it's cover" message that almost gives it some meaning, but I just finished watching this one as I type this, and I've already forgotten most of it. There's also a creepy Prince Charming-looking trainer that turns into a Lickilicky. That's all I got.
17. "Arceus and the Jewel of Life" (2009)
There's a lot of powerful Pokémon, but Arceus created the dimension that Pokémon live in and is one of the most powerful Pokémon of all time in the games. Arceus is sort of, by definition, God in the Pokémon universe, and God is a vengeful giant steel horse with a haughty voice. The human focus here is on Sheena, a girl with stunning brows who has the ability to communicate with Pokémon psychically. Sheena's ancestors betrayed Arceus (aka God), and she's looking to make amends. This one has a kind of cool backward- through-time "Memento" thing going on, but besides that I can't recall much other than more bad Diamond and Pearl animation. Also there's a part where Sheena trusts this one guy who has clearly disreputable hair.
16. "Kyuurem vs. The Sword of Justice" (2012)
The titular "sword of justice" here is the water unicorn Keldeo; he's better animated than any My Little Pony and calls to mind Osamu Tezuka's Baby Unico. This movie starts with a cute sequence on a train that made me think this was gonna be the Pokémon version of "Snowpiercer." Instead, things get bogged down by a neverending series of fights with Cryogonals, Kyuurem's snowflake minions. The Cryogonals kind of ruined it for me and ended up turning the last two-thirds of this movie into a real chore. Kyuurem himself, a menacing ice dragon, is actually legitimately scary at moments, so points for a Pokémon movie that put me a bit on edge.
15. "The Power of Us" (2018)
A bunch of Pokémon trainers find themselves at a wind festival celebrating Lugia, which is hosted by an annoying kid with white dreadlocks in a top hat. Unlike a lot of these other movies, "The Power of Us" tries for some character development for its human characters but doesn't stick the landing. There was one LOL-worthy dramatic scene where a sudowoodo says "sudowoodo!" and its trainer responds angrily with, "You're throwing my words back in my face!" At some point Ash rescues the mayor's WASPy daughter Margot from some thugs, and it all feels very "Trust authority, kids!" Trying to inject a real narrative into a Pokémon movie is an uphill battle, but there are a few attempted emotional twists, and the animation and character design is a step above most of the more recent outings. But in the end, I just could not care about the newer characters.
14. "Diancie and the Cocoon of Destruction" (2014)
"Cocoon of Destruction" isn't much better than most of these other movies, but main character Diancie is a diamond rock fairy goddess who needs the help of fairy stag Pokémon Xerneas, so it gets points for being extremely fey and high femme when compared to the rest of these fairly boy-oriented movies. One might think the Cocoon of Destruction is the overwhelming high ponytail hairstyle worn by villain Merilyn Flame, but it's actually the chamber that holds the legendary villain here, the dark dragon bird Yveltal. Diancie's diamond obsession makes her the Elizabeth Taylor of Pokémon, and her association with precious stones brings out a bunch of jewel thieves that Ash and crew have to fend off.
13. "Destiny Deoxys" (2004)
"Destiny Deoxys" fully commits to the Advanced Generation's cyberpunk leanings, and that's to its benefit. Most of the action takes place in LaRousse City, a high-tech town where everyone travels on conveyor belts and small block-shaped robots, which can form buildings and bridges, play the role of Big Brother. Most of the plot revolves around more boring fighting between two legendaries (Rayquaza and Deoxys), but what's actually of interest is a platinum-haired character named Tory, a young boy who has an extreme PTSD phobia of Pokémon ever since almost getting trampled by a herd of walrein as a child. Other than that, there aren't many signs of life.
12. "Pokémon Ranger and the Temple of the Sea" (2006)
This movie, clearly a promo for the Pokémon Ranger series, is set around the sea, and the aquatic setting gives it a nice focus that most of these other movies don't have. Ash and the gang encounter the Marina Group, a traveling aquatic circus who are tasked with protecting the eggs of Manaphy, a legendary amoeba-looking sea Pokémon that forms a close bond with May. The Marina Group's aquatic performances involve large floating orbs of water that they and their Pokémon swim through, and those are fun to watch. Also, the villain is a pirate who wears two belts on his beard. The mix of 2D and CG animation, which pops up in many of the Pokémon movies of this era, is at its best here. Ultimately, however, not much stands out.
11. "Pokémon: The Movie 2000" (1999)
Critics received this movie with a little more positivity than they did the previous entry, "Pokémon: The First Movie." However, I just can't get over Tracy Sketchitt, a Pokémon artist who replaced Brock as Ash's male companion and has no personality whatsoever. Also, this movie is set in the Orange Islands region, which was never depicted in the games and as such never quite found its footing with the fandom. Fun Fact: This movie's theme song, "The Power of One" (performed by Donna Summer) was quoted ad nauseam by handsy conservative Herman Cain during his doomed 2012 presidential campaign.
10. "Jirachi - Wish Maker" (2003)
By this point I had watched a couple of these movies, and whenever one of them stars a cutesy little legendary Pokémon, I immediately get worried for that cutesy little legendary Pokémon. This movie had a fun plot because you weren't sure who was trustworthy. Jirachi, the kawaii star-shaped Pokémon at the center here is a bit of a jerk, and the circus performers we meet early on seem suspicious as well, even after they rescue Pikachu from Team Rocket. The animation is sharp and colorful, and there are some awesomely bad moments that make it worth watching: The film ends with Ash and the gang stumbling through a wordless lullaby for Jirachi that had my boyfriend and me rolling on the floor.
9. "Lucario and the Mystery of Mew" (2005)
This one starts off in a medieval pre-pokéball moment in the Pokémon universe's history, and it was kind of cool to see that era of the past. Also, there is some real character development from Ash throughout, as he remembers his earliest days with Pikachu. This is definitely one of those movies that deals with Pokémon being disappointed in humans for being selfish or self-centered, a recurring trope in the series. The film's center, a canine steel/fighting-type Pokémon Lucario, makes some real sacrifices in this movie, and it's easy to understand why he's become a fan favorite -- especially in Japan, where this movie grossed 4.3 Billion Yen.
8. "Volcanion and the Mechanical Marvel" (2016)
This one starts with the legendary water/fire type Volcanion losing to an ice type, which isn't really believable; a recurring problem with the shows and movies is that they don't really seem to honor the fairly nuanced mechanics of the actual game. Things then slide into full-tilt Steampunk overkill when Ash discovers a clockwork kingdom and dons an outfit straight from "Newsies." The plot mostly revolves around Volcanion and a robotic Marie Antoinette-looking Pokémon named Magearna; it seems pretty clear that if Volcanion isn't Magearna's boyfriend, he wants to be. Also, the villains tether Ash to Volcanion with a sort of energy rope which causes Ash's butt to slam up against Volcanion whenever they get outside of a certain range of each other. Eventually the plot pivots to Navel Plateau, a preserve for abandoned Pokémon that Volcanion protects from Pokémon hunters, giving us a story with actual meaning and traces of heft, and there are a lot of cute moments. Volcanion talks about how Pokémon are wounded by the selfishness and lies of humans. According to Volcanion, Pokémon are incapable of lying -- I guess he's never met Meowth. Ash goes "not all humans" on Volcanion and comes off like a real entitled jerk, which is enjoyable.
7. "Pokémon: The First Movie" (1998)
OK, so maybe this movie only made it this high on the list because I saw it in theaters when I was in fifth grade, but if you're reading this, then it's possible that you did as well. "Pikachu's Vacation," the digital short which preceded "Mewtwo Strikes Back" in theaters and on VHS, is a sunny, fun romp that's suitably soundtracked by B*Witched, Vitamin C, and other toothache-sweet teen pop acts of the late 90s. The feature starts with a monologue from Mewtwo that's still stuck in my head 2- years later. Also, the house remix of the Pokémon theme song (performed by Billy Crawford) that accompanies Ash's opening battle still bangs. Once we get to Mewtwo's evil island, things start to get really really slow, but who can forget all the Pokémon fighting as "Brother My Brother" by Blessid Union of Souls plays in the background? For some reason, this movie's awesomely bad music has really stuck with me, but if you haven't heard of any of these recording artists, you're probably not alone.
6. "I Choose You!" (2017)
This was less a movie and more a dramatic retelling-advertisement for the earlier editions of the franchise, possibly to get a new generation of kids up to date. But what makes "I Choose You" stand out are these jarring, abject moments involving injured Pokémon; the images of a wounded Vaporeon with a limp tail and a Charmander in the rain getting kicked by its trainer are both burned into my mind. Ash rescues the wounded Charmander, of course, and as he gingerly cradles that little soft-spoken lizard in his arms. I couldn't help but get a bit misty-eyed. Ho-Oh is the real centerpiece here, and it refers to Ash as its "rainbow hero," which is probably the closest Pokémon is gonna come to queer representation. (Also, wrestling firecat Incineroar is strangely attractive?) This is one of the few newer Pokémon movies that actually has a Rotten Tomatoes score, which should tell you that it was intended to be a cut above the rest, and it is. However, "I Choose You!" makes the regrettable decision to swap out Ash's helpful original pals Brock and Misty for some new forgettable friends. What is the point of this revisionist history?
5. "Detective Pikachu" (2019)
Despite how high "Detective Pikachu" is on the list, I still gave it a Rotten on the Tomatometer when I reviewed it, which might give you a sense of the caliber of these films. But there are some great moments here, and the Pokémon are all well translated to live action. Some of the twists towards the end remind me of "Get Out," and considering my own caucacity, I'm not going to try to unpack that in this listicle. Ryan Reynolds is legitimately endearing and funny, and the battles in the underground Pokémon club gave me something of what I wanted.
4. "Pokémon 3: The Movie" (2000)
A lot of the earlier Pokémon movies benefit from three things: Misty, Brock, and an animation style that feels more organic and less digital. "Pokémon 3"'s story revolves around Molly, a little girl whose archaeologist father has been transported to a trippy alternate dimension by Unown. Molly accidentally summons the lion god Entei, who she thinks is her dad, and for some reason Entei goes along with the fantasy. Molly's dad is somehow able to afford a mansion on an archaeologist's salary, and once things start getting weird, the entire residence is caked over with rock formations that make it look like a beautiful giant diamond sea anemone. The reality-warping powers that somehow get bestowed on Molly make for some fun battles, and while "Pokémon 3" isn't as down to earth as the show per se, the storyline centering on Molly's family and her palpable sadness makes this one a bit more intimate, and that goes a long way.
3. "Pokémon White: Victini and Zekrom"/"Pokémon Black: Victini and Reshiram" (2011)
This is actually two separate movies which are nearly identical except for a handful of scenes, a marketing ploy resembling the Pokémon games' own release patterns. There's no point in watching both movies, but they do give one of the strongest plots of any movies in the series. The focus of the movie is the people of the Vale, a tribe which were scattered after a war between two brothers who controlled the legendary Pokémon Reshiram and Zekrom. The "Victini" movies actually deal with some pretty heavy issues around displacement and environmental destruction caused by war, and it does a good job of distinguishing a nation's people from the poor choices made by a nation's leaders and other parties. The oppressed becomes the oppressor when a trainer named Damon tries to reunite the people of the Vale by capturing cutesy fire Pokémon god Victini, draining it of its power against its will. Who knew Pokémon could take it there? I guess if you put enough 100 Mankeys in a room with 100 typewriters, eventually you'll end up with Shakespeare.
2. "Pokémon 4Ever: Celebi- Voice of the Forest" (2001)
This is the closest any of the films get for me to resembling the spirit of the games, because it's mostly set in a forest. "Pokémon 4Ever" stars Celebi, a time-traveling forest nymph Pokémon, and also involves the legendary ice cat Suicune; Suicune's mysterious presence in the woods recalls the Spirit of the Forest in "Princess Mononoke," which is never a bad film to resemble. Ash and the gang have to help a time-displaced boy named Sam rescue Celebi from the "Iron Masked Marauder," a member of Team Rocket who (surprise, surprise) wants to enslave the cute little legendary Celebi and harness its power. The "nature good, poachers bad" messaging is simple but true, and the twist reveal at the end does more to develop any of the core characters in Pokémon than any of these other movies combined.
1."Zoroark - Master of Illusions" (2010)
This was definitely the most thought-provoking watch of the bunch, starring Zoroark, a Pokémon with the power to create illusions and to transform into other Pokémon. Grings Kodai, a shady businessman with the power to see into the future, wants to harness Celebi's power to increase his divination skills, and he's captured Zoroark to help him achieve his goals. While Zoroark has the ability to create illusions, Grings Kodai is rich enough to control the media and deflect responsibility for his action onto Zoroark and others. Eventually Ash and crew show up, accompanied by some undercover journalists working to uncover Kodai's dealings. This movie had character arcs for nearly everyone, some surprising plot twists, and Grings Kodai was a stronger, more interesting, and more hateable villain than the similar Howard Clifford, played woodenly by Bill Nighy in "Detective Pikachu." (There are still some issues with translation here. At one point Kodai actually utters the phrase, "Victory is mine!")