Pokemon: The Power of Us
Pokemon’s appeal is deceptively simple. In a special interview before The Power of Us, the anime’s longtime director Kunihiko Yuyama mused about what fans enjoy about the series, commenting that Pokemon has “cute things,” “cool things,” “scary things,” and “gross things;” there are a lot of different “things” that make Pokemon special to people, and it’s hard to generalize why its fans love it. There are many different ways for fans to enjoy the franchise, and despite these diverse interests, their shared love of Pokemon unites them as a community. If there is one specific aspect of Pokemon that every fan shares, it’s the desire to live in the Pokemon world and spend time with the titular creatures. Pokemon Go has become the phenomenon it has by allowing fans the unique excitement of discovering, capturing, and battling Pokemon in their own backyard – bringing Pokemon into the real world through augmented reality. That was enticing enough to bring people into the franchise that hadn’t touched it since the original games came out, and even interested new people into playing for the very first time. The recent main series games have included features that allow you to dress up, groom, and play with your Pokemon like virtual pets. Let’s Go Pikachu & Eevee takes this even further by increasing the levels of interactivity you can have with your Pokemon and especially Pikachu and Eevee, who will show you affection in ways that will make even the most stoic fan’s heart melt. The Pokemon games have increasingly taken steps to make Pokemon feel like real creatures living with you, perhaps as a response to the anime’s depiction and popularization of what a Pokemon world would look like. Yuyama remarked that the Pokemon anime has always strived to show how Pokemon and humans live together harmoniously to make the world feel real, and next year’s live-action Detective Pikachu film will finally depict Pokemon coexisting alongside humans in real-life, visualizing a fantasy that fans have dreamed of for over twenty years. More people love Pokemon and there are more ways to love Pokemon than ever before.
The Power of Us reflects a post-Pokemon Go world, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of how broad Pokemon’s appeal is and how powerful a communal force it’s become. Pokemon’s longtime mantra has been “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” and its marketing has typically presented the idea of collecting Pokemon as being the main selling point and what makes one a Pokemon master. Secondary to that has been the aspect of battling Pokemon and that trainers need to beat other trainers, Gym Leaders, and eventually the Elite Four to be the champion. For the longest time, these two ideas have been the center of what’s supposed to make Pokemon fun, either watching it or playing it. Most of the anime is structured to emphasize this, with Ash’s goal to be a Pokemon master requiring him to repetitively challenge Gym Leaders and battle in the Pokemon League, encountering new Pokemon in every episode along the way. That is until Sun & Moon completely threw out the formula. While the Sun & Moon series has its share of battles, the focus of the anime is less about Ash’s quest to be the best but more the community of Alola and how the people there live with their Pokemon. Similarly, The Power of Us is about how the people and Pokemon of Fula city coexist. What differs about it, and remarkably reflects how Pokemon’s appeal has changed over the past twenty years, is that Ash is the only Pokemon trainer among the protagonists in the film! While every protagonist has their own Pokemon companions, only Ash actually battles other trainers and Pokemon. The rest of the protagonists Pokemon instead assist them in their daily lives and tasks, serving as friends and helpers. In showing how people can interact with Pokemon outside the contexts of collecting and battling, The Power of Us presents a fully-realized vision of what a Pokemon community would look like. Its story and characters embody the fantasy of the Pokemon world fans want to see more broadly than what an exclusive focus on Pokemon trainers alone would allow.
What’s more striking is the diversity of the protagonists in the film. Pokemon is no longer a franchise just enjoyed by kids and kids at heart but by people of all ages and demographics. The Power of Us reflects this by featuring a cast of characters that are all from different walks in life. Margo is a kid who hides a big secret because she can’t trust adults, Risa is a high schooler afraid to run again after a physical injury, Toren is a young researcher with social anxiety, Callahan is a loving uncle that goes too far telling tall tales to impress his niece, and Harriet is an elderly woman who shuns people and Pokemon because of a traumatic event in her past. The struggles each of these characters go through are connected in theme, but their specific problems are unique and reflect their age and situation. Their diversity reflects those of Pokemon fans, who themselves all come from different backgrounds and are connected through their love of Pokemon. In the Pokemon Adventures podcasts I recorded with my friends Vix and Annaliese, we reflected on how we built friendships and were able to meet people through Pokemon, and how the series helped us out through trying times. The characters in The Power of Us are similarly empowered by “Pokemon Power,” befriending one another through their shared love of Pokemon and Pokemon helping them overcome their emotional problems. Each one of these characters each has their own story in the same way each Pokemon fan has their own story. These characters’ struggles are specific, but also broadly relatable, which helps The Power of Us express its themes more universally and personally to its audience.
The Power of Us is about people and the community in which they live. Which is to say, it is also a movie about truth and trust. It shows how we hurt ourselves and the people around us through dishonesty, and that people can accomplish great things they can’t do alone by working together and having faith in one another. The film’s protagonists, with the exception of Ash, are all dishonest to some degree. They’re held back by their fears of rejection, and isolate themselves and hide their problems from others to avoid facing it. However, running away from the truth only makes their situations worse and hurts the people they’re trying to protect. For instance, Callahan lies about being a great trainer to his niece Kelly because he knows she’s been struggling with illness and wants to make her happy. When she learns the truth, not only is she upset about his lies, but the ensuing stress causes her constitution to worsen. Similarly, by trying to sabotage the Wind Festival instead of being told her father the truth about Zeraora, Margo only puts it and Fula City in more danger. Many of the film’s characters try to solve their problems alone, fail, and give up. It’s only by being open about their feelings and fears can they begin to address them, find supportive friends willing to help, and start affect positive change in their lives.
Most of the characters aren’t confident in themselves, haunted by past mistakes and traumas, and are cynical that they can change themselves. That’s where their Pokemon companions come in. Each character is granted partners that are perfect fits for their character arcs. For instance, Sudowoodo is a Pokemon that pretends to be a tree when it’s really a rock. Callahan is also a pretender, and rejects Sudowoodo because he sees too much of himself in it; venting his frustrations about wanting to be more honest about himself. Callahan considers himself useless because he doesn’t think he can be the heroic uncle Kelly wants, not realizing that his family already loves for who he really is. Callahan doesn’t think twice about saving Sudowoodo from Golduck, and doesn’t recognize that the reason Sudowoodo starts following him is because it admires his selflessness, as does Kelly. Through Sudowoodo, Callahan learns he doesn’t have to pretend to be someone else, because he can be a hero and accomplish great feats by simply being himself. Similarly, Risa’s fear of running is perfectly reflected in her relationship with her Eevee. By not running, Risa couldn’t save Eevee by being trampled by a crowd of people and getting its leg hurt much like hers was. Even though its leg is hurt, that doesn’t stop Eevee from trying to run again. By watching Eevee’s example, Risa realizes she shouldn’t be afraid of being hurt again, and she regains the confidence to run again. Ash boasts that with a Pokemon by your side, you can do anything, but that isn’t strictly literal. The film shows that while you might feel you can’t do anything alone, you don’t have to be. There are people around you who love you for who you are and will be there to support you. The first step is to recognize what those people see in you, trust them, and keep trying without being afraid of failing. It’s an empowering and important message for people of any age, more sophisticatedly expressed than Pokemon’s previous attempts to articulate it.
Other characters’ Pokemon companions reflect their interests and help them accomplish what they need to in the film. For instance, Torren has several Pokemon that would be helpful for a researcher like him studying Pokemon moves, particularly Smeargle, which has the ability to learn any move. His Chansey, popularly associated as a nurse’s aid in the anime, also symbolizes his desire to develop medicines that will help both people and Pokemon. However, the most clever and subtle Pokemon associations in the film are Harriet’s. Seemingly a random ensemble of popular Pokemon, her entourage each proves vitally useful in dealing with a forest fire towards the end of the film. However, the aptest and understated Pokemon in her party, and the one that most embodies the overall themes of the film is Xatu. Xatu is a Pokemon that sees both the past and future, and because it’s afraid it can’t change the future, it doesn’t move. This perfectly reflects Harriet, who’s so afraid of losing someone she loves again that she shuns everyone around her; she lives in fear of the future that could be, and is so preoccupied with her past, that she doesn’t even try to make friends. More broadly, Xatu represents the doubt inside each of the film’s protagonists, who doubt themselves based on their past mistakes that they can stop a potentially disastrous future. Xatu’s presence in the film is never explicitly highlighted, but fans of the franchise will recognize what it represents symbolically, and notice how cleverly it’s used in the film to reflect Harriet’s character arc and the themes of the film as a whole.
In general, it feels like a lot of thought was put into what Pokemon were included in the film and the purpose they served. Even Eevee, whose inclusion is a transparent tie-in to promote Let’s Go Eevee & Let’s Go Pikachu (there are even several scenes where Eevee and Pikachu playing together to highlight the association), is used effectively and meaningfully in the film. Even more refreshing is the film’s sparse focus on legendary Pokemon. Unlike past films, which are so obsessed with their legendary Pokemon that they are named after them, neither Lugia or Zeraora is the narrative focus of The Power of Us. They are an important part of the story but don’t distract from our protagonists. Zeraora learning to trust humans again and learning not to let bad experiences dictate how it lives with others is meaningfully in line with the themes of the film and mirrors what the other characters go through. Fans of the second Pokemon film, The Power of One, might be disappointed that Lugia is sparsely in the film, and the film makes no explicit references to that movie outside of Lugia’s iconic harmonica theme. That said, Lugia’s presence in the film is symbolically very similar. Lugia represents the balance between humans and Pokemon, a guardian that rewards the harmony between them. The key difference here is that unlike in The Power of One, Lugia doesn’t intervene in the middle of a crisis. Rather, Lugia only appears after humans and Pokemon have already begun cooperating and working together to solve it, rewarding them with its help. Whereas Lugia’s role in The Power of One was to guide Ash to be a hero, its appearance in The Power of Us reflects the heroic efforts already made by the protagonists.
While The Power of Us isn’t explicitly connected to The Power of One in, it serves as an interesting contrast to that film’s presentation of heroism. The central theme of The Power of One is that the actions of one person can make a big difference, but it’s chosen one narrative places more weight on the actions of Ash and conflates his good deeds with destiny. However, Ash couldn’t have saved the day alone; if not for his friends, Pokemon, Lugia, and most especially Team Rocket, he wouldn’t have been able to fulfill the prophecy. So while the chosen one narrative emphasizes Ash’s role, it ignores that saving the world was really a team effort. That said, there’s one scene in The Power of One that I couldn’t help but recall as I watched The Power of Us. When the battle between the legendary birds starts affecting mother nature worldwide, a massive migration of Pokemon begin traveling to the Orange Islands. When Ash comments on why they’ve come, Lugia replies that they all came to help, in whatever small way they can. Those Pokemon don’t get to help. At the end of the film, only Ash’s efforts are praised, forgetting the contributions of everyone else. To me, The Power of Us is that moment critiqued in the form of a feature-length film. It’s about people and Pokemon coming together to solve a problem, and unlike in The Power of One, they’re aren’t treated as supporting players in the hero’s story – they are the heroes. Everyone is needed to save the day, all of their contributions matter, and the entire community comes together to solve a problem affecting all of them. There isn’t simply one hero who will save the day for them; the day is only saved when everyone is allowed to be a hero.
Pokemon has always emphasized teamwork before, but mostly in the context of trainers and their Pokemon, and rarely between human beings. In the Pokemon films especially, Ash’s role overshadows those of his friends, who at best get to have one meaningful contribution to the story and at worst are simply around as tagalongs. So it’s incredibly refreshing to watch a Pokemon film that balances its focus equally on each of its protagonists and weights their arcs with equal importance and empathy. Ever character matters to the story, including Team Rocket, who have been little more than glorified cameos in the films for well over a decade! Ash might be the protagonist of the anime, but he is only one of many characters in this film. Conversely, his role feels more natural than previous movies’ attempts to make him a world-saving hero. Unlike the other protagonists, Ash is secure in who he is, not afraid to take risks to help others, and knows he can rely on Pikachu for help. There’s a particularly great scene where Ash asks Pikachu to help him save a rampaging Tyranitar, the confidence in their exchange demonstrating how well they know and trust one another. Pikachu is the only one of Ash’s Pokemon to appear in this film, and their relationship positively embodies the themes of trust and cooperation the film explores. Ash serves as the moral center and emotional support for the protagonists in the film, inspiring them to trust their Pokemon the way he trusts Pikachu, and most importantly, believe in themselves and their ability to do the right thing. His mentoring role is reassuring for the characters, and on a meta level, he speaks directly to the audience, many of whom have been watching his adventures for many years, if not decades. Ash will always be a kid, and will probably never become an adult. However, Ash is the most emotionally mature character in this film, and there’s a sense that he’s learned from his experiences. The confidence he has in himself and the faith he has in others, and his eagerness always to do the right thing, makes him more of an aspirational character in this film than he’s ever been. As a fan, it’s comforting to see that Ash will always be Ash, the same kid who will throw himself in front of a powerful attack to prevent others from getting hurt, but that he also learns and grows and changes as time goes on, and as Pokemon fans will throughout life. Pokemon works best as an ensemble show, focused on many different characters, and the mentor role Ash plays in this film is not just refreshing, it highlights his heroism better than most movies about him.
The Power of Us is beautifully written and animated, and one of the finest Pokemon feature films to date. The character animation is wildly expressive and full of personality. Even small moments of interaction between Ash and Pikachu embody their characterizations through movement, to say nothing of some of the amazing facial expressions and wild takes characters make in the film. Unlike most Pokemon movies, The Power of Us doesn’t depict many Pokemon battles, but the few it features are exciting and well-choreographed. Pikachu’s battle with Zeraora is a particular highlight, making great use of computer-generated backgrounds for dynamic camera movement complementing the speed and ferocity of their fight. The film’s softer and looser character designs really stand out, even in comparison to the Sun & Moon anime, allowing for more expressive and subtle bits of character acting stiffer designs wouldn’t allow. Fula city is a richly detailed and lived-in environment, and it felt like the filmmakers put thought into where everything was placed and how the people there lived. The color palette for Fula city during the day is full of lush greens and blues, making the nighttime forest fire scene in the film’s climax really stand out in its intensity. This is an artistically and aesthetically distinctive film from other entries in the franchise, which helps it stand out all the more.
One of my problems watching Pokemon movies in recent years has been The Pokemon Company’s insistence on removing the original Japanese soundtrack and replacing the majority of it with their own in-house music. This particularly bothered me when I saw I Choose You! last year since the dub’s replacement score actively undermined the emotions underscoring several scenes and failed to evoke the nostalgic feelings laden in the original. Thankfully, The Power of Us has left the original score intact, including scenes of silence, which are particularly important to several emotional moments in this film. The dub as a whole was exceptionally well-acted, with every actor believably embodying their character and able to go through the full range of emotions required of them, which hasn’t always been the case with the dub. The only performance I had quibbles with was Laurie Hymes as Kelly, whose squeaky vocal delivery sometimes distracted from her character, but she played the role well for the emotional moments that really mattered. Overall, this is one of the finest dubs Pokemon has received, and I hope they’ll maintain this level of quality going forward.
The Power of Us encompasses a lot of different things fans love about the franchise with a more personal story that resonates broadly. It’s a story without a villain, without a world-ending threat, and without excess. Instead, it really focuses on its characters and explores the ways people can support each other and the power of coming together as a community. Moreover, it’s a wonderful reflection of Pokemon’s real-life power as a community-binding force, the friendships it’s helped make, and the hardships it’s helped its fans overcome. Pokemon is a franchise, and as such it’s always promoting a product it wants you to buy. Many sections of this film are meant to promote Let’s Go Eevee & Let’s Go Pikachu and hype up Zeraora as the next big popular Pokemon, for instance. Despite all that, The Power of Us proves Pokemon can tell touching, human-focused stories, and that the franchise more than just an anime, games, cards, toys, and whatever else. Which shouldn’t be a surprise, since the core of Pokemon has always been about making human connections; trading is a necessity if you want to complete the Pokedex, encouraging you to make friends and trade with them to catch ‘em all. The Power of Us reminds us to value the friendships we make, and the accomplishments we can achieve by working together. It’s a good lesson, no matter your age, and that’s what makes Pokemon so timeless. They might not be real, but we all live in a Pokemon world.