Spell of the Unown Review

Although I use the English name of the movie and its characters to make the review more accessible to English-speaking fans, I was actually watching a fansub of the Japanese version of the movie. There may be some differences if you have only seen the dub.

Thoughts and Synopsis

The third Pokémon movie is a lot more intimate and personal than the previous two. There are no sinister villains or rampaging legendaries, only a little girl and some ancient Pokémon that make wishes come true. Your mileage may vary, but I generally think the Pokémon movies are better with smaller-scale, more personal conflicts: there's less focus on empty spectacle and more on giving us a reason to care.

The film starts with a bit of a prologue. Professor Hale, a Pokémon researcher, is reading to his little daughter Molly from a book about mythical Pokémon. He first shows her Unown and explains that he's been looking for them in his research, and then flips to a page showing Entei with a young woman riding on its back. Molly remarks that Entei is strong and kind just like him, and he plays along and pretends to be Entei for her.

Unfortunately, their game is interrupted by an e-mail on Professor Hale's laptop, which informs him that some clues about Unown have just been discovered at the ruins where he works. He has to go back there to continue his work, so he tucks Molly into bed and leaves.

When he arrives at the ruins, he finds a box of tiles with Unown letters on them and picks up some of them. The letters glow blue, and all of a sudden several Unown appear in mid-air, circle around him, and pull him into a strange otherworldly dimension full of Unown. His research partner looks around, but finds only the box of Unown tiles falling to the floor; Professor Hale is nowhere to be seen, and he has no choice but to report to Molly and the family butler that the professor has vanished without a trace.

He brought the box of Unown tiles back with him, though, and when Molly is alone, she starts to play with the tiles. She spells "Papa", "Mama" and "Me" before muttering that she misses her papa. Immediately, the Unown tiles begin to glow with the same blue light as when her father disappeared, and suddenly a swarm of Unown from the ruins emerge to circle around Molly.

The Unown, it turns out, are sensitive to human emotions and desires and can manifest them in physical reality, and for one reason or another they've taken a liking to Molly. They sense her fascination with the strange, dreamlike landscapes in her picture book and begin to create chaotic, wavy crystal growths that slowly take over the mansion, shutting her off inside, and creep ever farther out, threatening to envelop the entire world - but Molly is only a little girl who doesn't think that far, so to her the crystals are simply magical and beautiful.

When she looks into her picture book again, she sees the picture of Entei and wishes aloud that her father would come back to her, and the Unown obey, creating an illusory Entei out of thin air. In Molly's mind, Entei and her father are one and the same, and when she runs up to him and calls him "Papa", Entei accepts the role she has created for him.

Meanwhile, Ash, Misty and Brock are traveling in the area, only to find their destination has been covered in strange crystal growths, with what used to be the Hale mansion instead resembling a giant flower. A news van arrives at the same time and begins to record a live report on the phenomenon, which Ash's mom Delia and Professor Oak happen to see on television. Because Professor Hale was a student of Professor Oak's and a friend of Delia's, they immediately decide to travel to Greenfield as well to investigate and make sure Molly is all right.

Once they get there, they too are recorded on the news, and as Molly watches the report from inside her tower and sees Ash and his mom together, she idly tells Entei she wants a mama too. Entei obediently runs off to get one for her, crystals forming under his feet where they touch the ground. Since Molly was thinking of Ash's mom, he finds her with the protagonists, kidnaps her and psychically brainwashes her to think she is Molly's mother. Ash and Pikachu attempt to chase after Entei, but he shakes them off easily and takes Delia into the crystal tower, where Molly is ecstatic to have a mother again.

That night, people attempt to get through the crystal with a bulldozer, but when Molly sees it she is mortified, and the Unown make the crystals grow back even faster, encasing the bulldozer. Molly sends a video message to Professor Oak telling him she's happy now with her mama and papa and no one is allowed to enter the crystal palace.

Worried about his mother, Ash decides to try to go in there himself, and he is naturally followed by Misty and Brock, who want to help. As Ash climbs a waterfall with the help of Bulbasaur and Chikorita's Vine Whips, the ever-present news reporters show it live from the outside, and Molly and Delia are watching from inside the mansion. Ash slips and nearly falls, and the sight of him in danger snaps his mother out of Entei's hypnotic trance. She warily keeps playing along, however, realizing Molly needs someone to be her mother right now. Molly, oblivious, asks her if the boy on the screen is a Pokémon trainer, and she says yes.

As Ash, Misty and Brock make their way deeper into the mansion, the environment gets stranger, first with twisty, floating staircases and then what appears to be a pleasant field under a lightly clouded pink sky. All of this is created from Molly's imagination. Molly, still watching the live news report, realizes they've entered; Entei asks her if she wants them gone, but she shakes her head and says she wants to have a Pokémon battle with them. She asks if she can, and Entei says she can if she wishes.

By this point, Molly instinctively knows what to do: she closes her eyes in Delia's arms, and the Unown create an illusory adult body for her that rides Entei down to challenge Ash, Misty and Brock (her illusory body, not coincidentally, resembles the woman riding Entei in her picture book). Realizing Ash's mom must be further up in the tower, Brock offers to battle Molly to delay her while Ash and Misty continue up the floating stairs. Molly's control of her powers has become a lot more fine-tuned and a lot more eerie, and she easily commands the Unown to create a battle arena as well as three Pokémon. The Pokémon she chooses are a Flaaffy, a Teddiursa and a Phanpy - probably some of her favorite Pokémon - but they are unnaturally powerful and make short work of Brock's Pokémon. At one point Brock tells her she has a nice smile, semi-flirtatiously, but she only laughs and calls him weird - she may look older, but she is still only a little girl.

Ash and Misty have made their way to a place that looks like a beach, complete with ocean waves, when Molly appears before them again and demands another battle. This time, Misty stays behind to indulge Molly while Ash continues up the stairs. She introduces herself as a gym leader who uses Water Pokémon, and as Molly realizes you don't have to be an adult to be a gym leader, she changes her body again to be Misty's age. She calls up a tsunami, flooding the area with illusory, breathable water in order to have a Water Pokémon battle.

While they battle, Ash finally reaches the top of the tower, where his mom sits with Molly's sleeping real body. He tells her that Entei and the palace were created by Unown from Molly's mind, and she wakes Molly and explains that she is really Ash's mom and not hers and she shouldn't be there. Molly is upset and screams no, and immediately sharp crystals spike out of the floor in an embodiment of her anger. As Ash and his mom try to flee, Entei arrives on the scene; Molly tells him Ash is trying to take her mama away, and naturally, Entei takes this as his cue to try to chase Ash out of the palace. While trying to fight Entei off with his Pokémon, he declares he won't be defeated by an illusion, but Entei derides that as ridiculous, revealing that he is unaware of his true nature. When Ash tries to explain that he was created from Molly's mind, she again becomes upset and makes further crystal spikes grow from the floor. Entei roars that he is her father and continues to attack Ash as Pikachu fiercely attempts to protect him. Meanwhile, Delia calls out to Molly and pleads for her to remember her real father and mother.

Entei blasts Ash and Pikachu out through the wall, but as they are falling, they are suddenly grabbed - by Ash's Charizard, who was shown earlier in the movie watching some of those news broadcasts in Charicific Valley and rushing off to help Ash. Charizard flies them back up and they confront Entei again.

Entei asks who that is, and Ash says Charizard is his friend - that all his Pokémon are friends that he met on his journey. This resonates with the lonely Molly. Ash asks her to come with them, but she only conjures up her Flaaffy, Teddiursa and Phanpy from earlier, insists that they are her friends and tells him to get out, prompting Entei to fire yet another Hyper Beam. Delia asks Entei if he really thinks he can be Molly's father, and he responds that he'll be her father so long as she wishes before lunging after Ash, who has gotten on Charizard's back.

A battle between Entei and Charizard ensues. Ash pleads to Entei that if he really cares about Molly, he will realize that it's bad for her to continue to pretend he's her father, but Entei fiercely responds that even if he's wrong, he will grant Molly's wishes. Ash shouts that if this goes on, Molly will always be alone, but Entei only continues to attack. Eventually Entei has knocked Charizard down to the ground, places a paw on its neck and prepares a killing blow, but Molly suddenly steps in and begs him to stop. Naturally, he obeys.

Ash, Misty, Brock and Delia start to talk to the confused Molly. They compliment her on her battling skills and tell her that in the outside world she will be able to make real friends. After a moment of hesitation, Molly takes Delia's outstretched hand. The crystal flower covering the building, which used to be closed, starts to open, symbolizing the change in Molly's heart, and her illusory Pokémon disappear as she no longer needs them. Entei, however, turns around, confused and lost: if she no longer wants him as her father, then he has no purpose anymore.

All of a sudden, more crystals begin to sprout from the floor. Now that Molly's mind has stopped directing the Unown, they can no longer control their power and begin to chaotically expand the crystal growths at random, both within and outside the palace. Entei breaks through some crystals so that they can get down from the tower; Molly is put on Charizard's back to keep her safe.

They find their way into the central room where the Unown hover in a rotating, layered sphere pattern. They realize that they have to stop the Unown by defeating them somehow. Ash tries his usual approach of running as fast as he can at the Unown and then attempts to have his Pokémon attack them, but they have a powerful protective barrier that prevents the attacks from harming them, and the Unown retaliate by generating more spikes out of the floor and starting to build a crystal dome to encase them.

Luckily, Entei bursts through a wall just in time and fires a Hyper Beam at the newly-grown crystals. He tells Molly that he was happy being her father and that the best thing he can do for her now is to banish the Unown to let her go outside. Because he was created from her mind, he adds, she only needs to believe in him to give him the power to do anything. As Entei struggles to get through the energy shield, Molly hesitates, but then (with Ash's encouragement) she shouts for him to hang in there, and Charizard and Pikachu join in to help. Entei manages to breach the barrier and fire a Hyper Beam at the Unown, and there is a bright explosion.

When they look up again, Entei is floating in the air. He must disappear along with the Unown, since he was an illusion they created, after all. He has the time to thank Molly for calling him Papa and saying he will return to her dreams before he vanishes. A dimensional portal appears and the Unown are sucked into it as everything they created in the physical world, from the letter tiles to the crystal growths, disappears.

The characters make their way out of the mansion into a bright, sunny day and look out over the fields in their natural state. Molly sees an Entei in the clouds and mutters a final thank you before they leave the mansion.

Just as the end credits begin, we see a portal open in the ruins and Professor Hale being dropped out of it from the Unown world. We then see him reunited with Molly, and later, as Molly plays with a real Teddiursa in the gardens, he even returns with her mother, who was presumably only lost or off on a long trip and not dead or gone as one might have assumed.

The Good

The concept and core plot of this movie are quite interesting. A lonely little girl who can make her wishes come true creates a twisted nightmare in an attempt to replace her lost father and mother - it's pretty unusual, with just the right amount of unsettling.

The conflict here is also a lot more personal than in the previous two films, as I mentioned at the beginning of the synopsis. Instead of Ash just sort of being there, Molly is a friend of his family and his own mother is kidnapped. The absolute stakes may not be as high, but the emotional stakes are much higher, and the characters have a much more intimate connection to what's going on that makes for a more subdued, psychological story. And it's pretty well handled: we care about Molly, we really get the sense that the other characters care about her, and they approach her with kindness and sensitivity that's sweet and feels right.

The resolution, similarly, just works on a character level. Throughout the movie, Molly is lonely and insecure and clings to the fantasy world the Unown have created for her as a substitute for the real world, but when the fantasy world becomes frightening even for her, Ash and company reassure her that in the outside world she can be accepted, be a trainer and make friends for real, and at that point it just makes sense for her to want to get out. There's no weird deus ex machina or arbitrary magic pulled out to resolve things; it simply happens through realistic character development.

In general, Molly is pretty fascinating and well realized even outside of her main character arc. She's very distinctly childlike, and the way that influences her perceptions of the world plays a huge part in the story - she convinces herself Entei and Delia can just replace her real parents, has no conception of the consequences of the expanding crystal growth, and clings to the idea that her illusory Pokémon are an adequate substitute for real friends. One of my favorite parts of this movie is when she challenges Misty and Brock: at a glance this seems like filler for the sake of including some battles, but it's actually full of exploration of her desires and motivations and revealing moments that expose her heartbreakingly sincere, realistically naïve thinking.

Entei, too, is surprisingly interesting, although he doesn't get a lot of development per se. He starts as simply a sort of amoral entity enforcing Molly's wishes, but when we learn he doesn't realize he's an illusion, his existence is revealed as a tragically confused one - all he understands is being whatever Molly wants him to be, and when Molly rejects the illusion, he's simply lost. Their relationship is sweet, in a strange, dysfunctional way, and when he sacrifices his existence to let Molly go outside to be happy, it brings it full circle in a sad but satisfying manner.

I also enjoy the fact that this movie manages to have a "You must believe in me!" scene that makes perfect sense: Molly really can make the illusions created from her mind more powerful simply by wanting it, as we saw in her battles with Brock and Misty, so her desire for Entei to succeed really does make it happen. Moreover, it serves as the ultimate conclusion to her character arc: she hesitates at first, but eventually finds the strength to wish for him to banish the Unown with all her heart, cementing her realization that she really must escape her fantasy and return to the real world.

The visuals, particularly the crystals and everything around them, are just the right mix of eerie and beautiful and give the film a memorable, alien atmosphere. And lastly, I quite like the music in this movie - although like with the previous two movies, it was all replaced in the dub.

The Bad

The Unown are probably the weakest link in the plot of this movie. While their behaviour can be interpreted in ways that sort of make sense - for instance, perhaps the reason they grant Molly's wishes but not Professor Hale's is simply that they're more attracted to a child's imagination - the movie doesn't really give any hints, making their actions seem arbitrary. Their strange alienness is nicely creepy, but without any sense of what they want or why they do what they do, plot elements like them pulling Professor Hale into the alternate dimension and then releasing him again at the end seem aimless and disconnected. We can't regard these elements on the movie's own terms, because it doesn't give us any terms on which to regard them: we're forced to see the alternate dimension as simply a writer's way to get Molly's father out of the way for the duration of the movie so that she can miss him and kick off the plot.

It also unfortunately suffers from several pointless characters and scenes. You may have noticed I never mentioned Team Rocket in the synopsis; this is not because they're not in it, but because their scenes are wholly irrelevant and contribute nothing to the film. Mostly they're just poking around in the background, looking for treasure that doesn't exist, in scenes that aren't even humourous enough to be called comic relief. There is only one scene where they interact with any other character at all, and even that scene wasn't relevant enough to be mentioned in the synopsis (Ash is about to fall out of the tower when Brock, Misty and Team Rocket help him back up, but this bit serves no purpose other than to have Team Rocket briefly exchange some words with the protagonists before returning to background irrelevance). Even aside from Team Rocket, the movie also spends a while at the beginning introducing us to a Pokémon trainer named Lisa (the opening theme song is played over Ash's battle with her), who ultimately serves no real purpose for the narrative.

This probably contributes to the pacing being a bit slow. Ash and company don't even meet Molly until half an hour in, and with the narrative repeatedly grinding to a halt to pointlessly show us what Team Rocket are doing, it can't make the story flow as well as it should. It's a shame, because the actual story is so relatively solid.

Conclusion

Despite those little niggles, I think this is one of the best executed Pokémon movies, and it currently stands as my second favorite after Lucario and the Mystery of Mew. The concept is intriguing, the plot is captivating, the characters have depth and the general atmosphere is excellent, and by having a more subdued and personal conflict, it does a much better job resolving it in a satisfying way than the previous two movies did.

Page last modified August 12 2016 at 22:34 GMT