Like the (frankly, excellent) Transformers movie from the ‘80s, the many Pokémon movies were created to supplement a popular and commercially lucrative brand. Since they started back in 1998 with Pokémon: The First Movie, the anime movie series’ intention has been threefold: to maintain the attention of current Pokémon fans; to recapture ex-Pokémon fans; and to ignite interest among future Pokémon fans.
On all fronts they’ve succeeded. While the Pokémon movies have often been entirely dismissed by various critics who have no love for Pokémon itself (as proven by their unimpressive Rotten Tomatoes scores), many of them – though not all of them – have carved out a spot among the hearts of Pokémon fans across the globe. What’s more, aside from the fuzzy nostalgia that they induce, more than a few of the Pokémon movies are actually good.
In the first instance, you have to know what to expect here. With a Pokémon movie, you’re going to (almost) always get an animated adventure movie aimed at the target market: children and young people.
This is enough to put some people off the Pokémon movies, but here’s the catch: we all know that kids’ movies can still have their own artistry and value. Just look at Disney and Pixar, or Studio Ghibli movies. To dismiss them out of hand merely because they fall under that umbrella is to do yourself a disservice. Kids movies are no less inherently worthy just because they’re kids movies.
So that’s the first expectation you need to set yourself. The second is that, unlike plenty of other adaptations of media aimed at children, the Pokémon movies largely take themselves seriously. That can be unexpected and, given the rest of the current media landscape, jarring.
These are animated movies that take their premise and treat it not as some burden to free themselves of, but as something to embrace. The first Pokémon movie legitimately feels like a sequence from a Pokémon game, and that’s no accident. This series wants to stay as close to the tone, atmosphere, and heart of the videogames as possible, in order to accurately represent the entirety of the franchise.
Even Detective Pikachu (a movie which, fun fact, grossed more than the Dwayne Johnson videogame movie Rampage) wants you to treat it seriously, despite the fact that it’s a Ryan Reynolds vehicle. It wants you to really imagine yourself within the world of Pokémon, and in doing so it’s a lesson in worldbuilding that other fantasy or science fiction movies could do with observing. Almost every scene in the heartwarming action movie has some moment of wonder that, if you love Pokémon, is exactly the kind of thing you’ve dreamed of.
If you don’t like Pokémon – or more likely, if you don’t know much about Pokémon – Detective Pikachu is a great place to start. With expert grace and precision, it’s an introduction to the world of Pokémon, placing the charm and excitement of the premise front and centre. Even if you have no basic knowledge of the franchise, it would be impossible to leave Detective Pikachu with anything other than a desire to start your own Pokémon adventure.
That then opens the door to the animated selection of the fantasy movies. These are the movies that so many Pokémon fans grew up with, and there’s a high chance that you’ve watched at least one of them purely by osmosis.
The natural place to start is the beginning, and Pokémon: The First Movie is a perfectly serviceable way to kick things off. It has genuine heart and emotion, and touches on broader social ideas (the ethics of cloning and genetic manipulation) while never getting bogged down by them, and while always remaining fun and action packed. If you have a child, they’ll probably form a stance on those ideas without even realising it.
From there, the Pokémon movies progress through the various regions within the franchise introducing you to new adventures in new places with new faces of Pokémon and anime characters alike.
Perhaps the very pinnacle is The Rise of Darkrai. Focussed on a cosmic battle between the forces of time and space, The Rise of Darkrai is an often-haunting and always entertaining adventure, which reinforces the notion of never judging a book by its cover. It’s also filled with some beautiful musical arrangements, which will earworm their way into your mental catalogue of memorable tunes.
In each of the many Pokémon movies, and even in the lesser entries, there is something worth savouring and enjoying. Of course, it helps if you already love Pokémon games, or if you have a pre-existing emotional connection to the anime series and wider franchise. But that isn’t a necessity.
The Pokémon movies are often good, and occasionally great. They deserve a spot within the pantheon of fun movies for kids that can be enjoyed by all, and when the snobbery subsides they might even get there. Now, we wait for Detective Pikachu 2.
For more on Pokémon, take a look at our guide on where to watch Pokémon, as well as our picks for the best anime villains. Or, keep up to date with every major new movie in 2023. Alternatively, if you love the Pokémon games then be sure to check out these guides on the every Pokémon in the Pokedex, the current Pokémon Go promo codes, and how to evolve Eevee in Pokémon Go.