The Power of Us and Antagonist-Free Action

Pokémon: The Power of Us is currently available to stream from Amazon or Google platforms.

I openly adore Pokémon.

The monsters themselves are cute and inventive, the series has maintained an overwhelmingly positive image for over twenty years running, and for the occasional flack that it gets for its parallels to cockfighting, the series has always been every bit as much about the childlike wonder of exploration, discovery, and collection.

For its part, the series does its best to support these ideals through adding exploration-focused mechanics like HMs and an involved capturing system that aren’t often matched by other role-playing games. A wide range of games outside the well-known “main series” forego the more pugnacious elements entirely in favor of exploring other corners of the setting – notably the well-remembered Pokémon Snap and even the then key gameplay loop of mainstream success Pokémon Go, in addition to more inventive ones like adventure game Ranger and now-a-major-motion-picture Detective Pikachu.

The franchise behaves the same across other media, too – there’s the obvious focus on collection as much as actually playing in the series’ trading-card game (whether or not you want to take a cynical eye to that one), and the television series has long been more about worldbuilding via its episodic characters and locations rather than the excuse plot of league challenges and competitions, which turn up with ever-decreasing frequency. The more recent seasons even forego physical confrontations for episodes at a time on favor of putting the characters in a classroom or field trip setting – or so I hear, since I’ve caught maybe a handful of episodes in the last several years.

And it’s nice that the anime continues to exist as a representation of the concept that isn’t entirely pinned to the mechanics of a game. Other game settings suffer from this, too – how convenient that any given town in a Final Fantasy title will have one each of equipment shops and an inn, plus about half-dozen other buildings – but Pokémon was been hit especially hard by the limitations of being on a handheld device in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, despite its dogged determination to give each new game a different visual flaair and to fit in flavor text and dialogue to flesh things out wherever it could.

The Pokémon anime’s annual movies are where its designs can get much more intricate and illustrative, all of them since about 2002 borrowing landmarks and architectural inspiration from real-life locations. From obviously-Venitian canals and Gothic buildings to a hyper-technological metropolitan island in the image of Vancouver and more recently a French village built with a Romanesque flourish, up to its castle-on-a-hill, every one of them catches the eye with a distinct sense of place.

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Then there’s this place – not a city, but super-evocative, and also drawn from Wulinyuan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s something that the games have been doing in their limited capacity since day one, with the first set of games modeling themselves after the real-life Kanto to the point that fans have detailed running lists of which game locations map to what real-life places. Each in turn has done the same to increasing degrees of success; it’s just that the fidelity of a handheld video game and the necessary affordances for gameplay purposes mean they can’t hold a candle to what the animation is capable of.

But in a less visually-focused way, the Pokémon anime can really dig into the ideas that the games (the honest face of the series) just have their hands tied on. As much as those spin-off games like to shine their light on the more constructive aspects of the hypothetical relationship between humans and approximately-sentient creatures (leagues more self-aware than real-world animals, at least), they’re almost always just flashes in the pan and never have nearly the visibility that the anime has maintained in its ludicrously-long run.

The anime’s continual drift away from structured competition and explicit fighting is all the more important for this reason, and The Power of Us is clearer than clear on that front.

The crux of which being that The Power of Us is an exceedingly uncommon thing: an action movie without a proper villain.

Technically, it has three antagonists, but none of them really matter for various reasons. One of them gets into a conflict because of a genuine and reasoned misunderstanding, another are two-bit thugs who are discarded not five minutes after they’ve been introduced, and the third set of antagonists – the ever-recognizable Team Rocket trio – spend most of the movie running a concessions stand and only really cause problems through their negligence, not any malicious intent.

Instead, the actual conflicts in focus throughout the story are fully of the protagonists’ own doing, and are their own problems to deal with. One is a showoff and habitual liar, the next a cantankerous loner, another can only think of herself as washed-up, the fourth is plagued with constant anxiety, and the last is simply helpless what with being a literal child.

Then you have Ash, who is only really there for brand recognition as far as I can tell, and who is the only one to initiate anything resembling the series’ traditional “battles” – even then, it’s only in less than a handful of short sequences throughout a ninety-minute flick. Instead, you’re just as likely to see him use his capabilities to save one of the titular monsters from strangling itself or to act as a mentor to the self-esteem-less Risa.

And despite the relative lack of “this Pokémon fights that Pokémon” that the series is supposedly founded on, every one of the film’s five leads with their intersecting character arcs has something to contribute both to the action sequences and to the film’s emotional conceit.

Callahan, for example, is a complete and obvious fraud despite how he talks a big game. He amusingly gets paired up early on with a Sudowoodo, a Pokémon whose whole concept (read: gameplay hook) is that its entire visual design is a facade. Not a subtle metaphor. The two end up benefiting each other’s respective confidence and quiet persistence, in addition to their actual skills pairing up to deliver on a clutch-play sequence in the movies’ climax.

It’s on the heavy-handed side an awful lot of the time, but what do you expect? Pokémon has always targeted itself at kids. Yet in its own way, the target audience skewing so young is yet another clear point in favor of the direction The Power of Us has taken. The cleaned-up version of playfighting prevalent in the rest of the series is perfectly tolerable – especially when you put it next to the more openly confrontation-oriented superhero franchises that dominate the movie and toy landscapes at the moment.

But here, we’re yet another step away from that. Any success that the characters have explicitly comes from confronting their own shortcomings and – more clearly and importantly – mutual cooperation. The series always claimed starry-eyed that cooperation is one of its core values, with the monster-trainer relationship benefiting both parties, but usually that’s more of a layer of subtext behind the front-and-center monster tusslin’. In this film, it’s the main text.

And that cooperation isn’t even in coming together to fight some bigger evil or anything. Instead, it’s in a bunch of regular, inexperienced folks learning from each other, overcoming their personal hang-ups, and collaborating to clean up a very dangerous mess that’s nonetheless not actually anybody’s fault. The world doesn’t work in terms of heroes and villains, so it helps immensely when our media doesn’t operate under that pretext, either. Everything from how the characters contribute according to their own strength to how they pull each other and themselves up and out of their respective funks contributes directly to the central message. It’s not about overcoming any specific adversary. It’s about… well, it’s the title of the feature, really.

I’m not gonna say it, that’s just corny.

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Five protagonists of assorted ages, plus Contractual Obligation Kid.

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