Since Pokémon was first unleashed upon the world in 1998, the ever-popular IP has birthed a video game franchise, a trading card game, an anime series, a film series, books, manga comics, music and plenty of merchandise. There are a total of 28 Pokémon films, made up of 22 animated films (split into two separate continuities), a CGI remake of the first film, three television specials, one television miniseries and one live-action film. Given the sheer quantity of options and an intimidating two decades-worth of continuity, the Pokémon films have a pretty significant barrier to entry despite mostly not connecting to the overall series continuity. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with these films (especially since they aren’t numbered and tend to have interminable titles), so we’ve gone through every single one and compiled a list of the best films in the franchise (grading on a Pokémon movie scale, of course).
Best Pokemon Movies
Though it is marred by a muddled “Pokémon shouldn’t fight” message and the fact that it had a rather difficult journey full of edits on its way from Japan to the United States, Pokémon: The First Movie is the film that has had the most staying power in the 2+ decades since its release. The film sees the genetically-engineered Mewtwo undergo an existential crisis, so it lures Ash, Pikachu and several other top trainers into a Pokemon match with its super-clones in order to hash out which species is the strongest. This film has pretty much everything you could want from a Pokémon film, and then some. From the absolutely bangin’ soundtrack (Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and *NSYNC are just a few of the era-appropriate names to grace the tracklist) to the epic Mew vs. Mewtwo showdown, Pokémon the First Movie will always be a fan favorite. After all, can anyone watch that “Brother My Brother” sequence without shedding a tear? If not, Ash’s “death” will do the trick. Were it not for the unnecessary memory wipe ending, this film might be the best entry in the film series, but that honor actually goes to…
While it earned marginally better reviews than the first film, Pokémon: The Movie 2000 nevertheless served as a step down for the film franchise’s box office (a $43 million domestic haul compared to the first film’s $85 million). This is a shame, because what the film may lack in terms of a memorable soundtrack, it more than makes up for with a stronger, more cohesive story that sees Ash, Misty and Tracey go toe-to-toe with a megalomaniac collector named Lawrence III. Lawrence is trying to capture the three Legendary Bird Pokémon Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres in order to awaken the even-more-powerful Lugia, which will unfortunately have some climate change-related, apocalyptic results. What makes Lawrence III so interesting as a villain is that he serves as a sort of meta-commentary on rabid Pokémon fans and collectors (aka the film’s primary audience), and witnessing the Pokémon team work that into an admittedly ho-hum story about Ash’s “Chosen One” makes for a more compelling viewing experience. Throw in some world-ending stakes and a better use of animation than seen in the first film, and Pokémon: The Movie 2000 easily ranks among the best (if not the best) Pokémon films. Plus, it even gives Team Rocket a memorable arc, something that all the best Pokémon films remember to do.
Those who were left disappointed with Pokémon: The First Movie’s memory wipe ending might have missed this TV special that serves as a direct sequel to the film. Released during the fourth season of the original anime series, Mewtwo Returns sees Team Rocket leader Giovanni (the only character not have their memory erased at the end of the first movie) track down Mewtwo and its Pokémon sanctuary so that he can concoct a military plan of assault to take the Pokémon back for himself. The film benefits greatly from the re-use of its predecessor’s score, adding a significant amount of nostalgia to the proceedings (despite airing a mere two years after the first film’s release). It also includes more footage of Mewtwo’s existential crisis that was cut from the US release of the first film, giving this one a bit more narrative weight. That being said, it takes Ash & Co. a full hour (of a 74-minute runtime) to cross Mewtwo’s path, making any Ash scenes in that first hour feel like just another episode of the TV show. But hey, at least Mewtwo doesn’t wipe their memories this time!
Skipping right past Pokémon 3: The Movie – Spell of the Uknown: Entei’s self-contained WandaVision-esque story and moving right along to some time-travel shenanigans, Pokémon 4Ever’s Ferngully-ish events begin 40 years ago when a young trainer named Sammy protects Mythical (and time-traveling) Pokémon Celebi from an evil hunter named Marauder. The hunter aims to turn Pokémon evil with his Dark Balls and increase their power to the highest level for his own insidious means. Sammy accidentally gets caught in Celebi’s time portal and is shot forward to the present day where he teams up with Ash, Misty and Brock to prevent a still-alive Marauder from carrying out his plan. The relationship between Ash and Sam grounds the narrative, and while it has the effect of sidelining Brock and Misty for most of the film, the twist ending involving Sammy’s true identity recontextualizes every scene between Sammy and Ash, making for one of the more touching entries in the Pokémon film franchise. Just ignore the massive CGI eyesore that plagues the film’s final 15 minutes and you’ll probably find a lot of enjoyment out of Pokémon 4Ever.
The second of Generation III’s films is Destiny Deoxys, which sees a comet containing the Mythical (and extraterrestrial) Pokémon Deoxys crash-land on Earth, angering the Legendary Pokémon Rayquaza and kickstarting a high-stakes battle for earthly dominance. The battle is eventually brought to the high-tech LaRousse City, where Ash & Co. are currently visiting and get sucked into this massive alien war. Operating as the franchise’s first kaiju-esque film, Destiny Deoxys gets a lot of mileage out of the subplot involving the PTSD that new character Tory suffered from witnessing Deoxys’ first battle against Rayquaza. There’s a grand scale included here that all the best Pokémon movies have, as well. Sure, the film still falls victim to the usual issues (Team Rocket is sidelined, the CGI in the climax looks pretty bad and, even at 85 minutes, the runtime is slightly bloated), but the pros outweigh the cons in this seventh Pokémon film.
If you got choked up during Ash’s “death” in Pokémon: The First Movie, then get the tissues ready for the climax of Lucario and the Mystery of Mew, which adds a medieval wrinkle into the traditional Pokémon formula. The film sees Ash come face-to-face with the Pokémon Lucario, who was betrayed by its previous owner hundreds of years ago. The two then reluctantly team up to save Pikachu and the world. Pokémon not trusting humans is well-worn narrative territory for the franchise, but Lucario and the Mystery of Mew handles the material the best if only because it takes the time to inject some genuine pathos into Lucario’s backstory. Acting as a sort of thematic cousin to Mewtwo but without Mewtwo’s more terrorist-y designs, Lucario makes for a wonderful co-lead with Ash. The film also boasts one of the franchise’s most beautiful settings, with the film’s central setting of Cameran Palace calling to mind Slumberland from Little Nemo (seriously, there’s a magical scepter and everything). The CGI animation has also greatly improved, blending in with the classic animation much better than it has in previous films. Throw in the three Legendary Regis, a sentient booby-trapped tree and one unforgettable scene of sacrifice, and you’ve got one of the best Pokémon films ever released. Just make sure you’ve got some tissues handy because it’s a sad one!
While most of the Pokémon films operate as standalone films, that narrative trend was broken once and only once during Generation IV’s (the Diamond/Pearl/Platinum generation) trilogy made up of The Rise of Darkrai, Giratina and the Sky Warrior and Arceus and the Jewel of Life. The Rise of Darkrai kicks off the trilogy’s cosmic events with the Mythical Pokémon Darkrai, the franchise’s misunderstood Freddy Krueger (it unleashes nightmares upon sleeping passersby), who is tasked with holding off the fight between Legendary Pokémon Dialga (ruler of time) and Palkia (ruler of space) until Ash & Co. can calm them down.
The animation here is a huge step up from previous entries, thanks to it being the first Pokémon film to use digital animation instead of the previously used traditional cel animation, and the introduction of a time-space rift is surprisingly dense for a movie aimed at children. Dialga and Palkia are a bit underserved here, but given that their presence in this film serves as a mere introduction before they get increased roles in the third chapter, their narrative unimportance can be forgiven in the grand scheme of things. Plus, The Rise of Darkrai comes as close to a cosmic horror film than any other Pokémon film ever has, so that’s pretty neat.
Pokémon: Arceus and the Jewel of Life (2009)
While Giratina and the Sky Warrior is saddled with many of the troubles that plague middle entries in trilogies (it’s also quite boring), Arceus and the Jewel of Life brings things home in glorious fashion with an epic time-traveling adventure that sees Mythical Pokémon Arceus, the creator of the world, arriving to pass judgment on humanity for the theft of the Jewel of Life, which has the ability to make desolate lands rich and fertile. Ash & Co. are then sent back in time to reverse the events that led to Arceus’ vendetta.
It cannot be understated: this movie is wild. We’ve got an angry god Pokèmon wreaking havoc on our planet because humans screwed it over thousands of years ago. We’ve got the rifts of space and time colliding and causing pandemonium. We’ve got Pokémon slaves. Finally, we’ve got a lot of time travel, and while the specifics of the time travel may not hold up under narrative scrutiny, it makes for a fantastical Pokémon adventure that serves as the perfect capper for this trilogy of films.
Our Pokemon Legends: Arceus Review is available now for those diving in this weekend!
Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! (2017)
You’ll notice that the films from Generations V and VI are not included in this list and that’s because, well, they’re not very good (this despite the fact that the XY seasons of the anime are among the series’ best). The Japanese box office reflected this too, with the franchise seeing progressively lower and lower returns with each consecutive entry. OLM, Inc. saw this trend and decided on a different approach for the 20th film in the Pokémon film franchise, and that’s how we got Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You!, a loose reboot of the anime’s pilot episode (similarly titled “Pokémon – I Choose You!”). The film has its heart in the right place and serves as a good introduction to the IP for new viewers (or for longtime fans who want to relive some of the first season’s most iconic moments). The truncation hurts it in places (Butterfree’s release has almost zero emotional impact and the lack of recognizable companions is a bummer) and the scene which Pikachu talks is horrendous, but otherwise it’s an adorable little reboot of the Pokémon films.
The first and (so far) only live-action Pokémon film didn’t need to go this hard, but it did and it’s all the better for it. Rather than try to condense the franchise’s premise and lore into one film, The Pokémon Company opted to adapt the lesser-known 2016 video game Detective Pikachu into a feature film in the hopes of removing the aforementioned barriers to entry inherent to the franchise. The film, which sees former Pokémon trainer Tim Goodman team up with a talking Pikachu in order to solve the disappearance of Tim’s father, features homages to films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (those Ditto eyes are the stuff of uncanny nightmares) and Tim Burton’s Batman, but still manages to carve out its own distinct identity. That’s not an easy feat for a film working off of 20 years of franchise history. Operating simultaneously as an Easter Egg-filled tribute to fans and an easy-to-access entry point for Pokémon virgins, Detective Pikachu excelled all expectations to be a shockingly witty and entertaining film that is better than it has any right to be. It’s not just a great Pokémon film; it’s a great film in general.