The Power of One 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. As 4Kids significantly rewrote the movie for its English-language release, there will be some differences if you have only seen the dub.
Thoughts and Synopsis
The second Pokémon movie is the first of what I like to call the Legendaries Randomly Fighting™ movies. Because legendaries fighting each other makes for cool visual spectacle and high wow factor, one of the most common plot setups for the Pokémon movies is to find an excuse for some legendaries to fight, and then some way or another having Ash get them to stop fighting. (I'm not counting the first movie as a Legendaries Randomly Fighting™ movie per se because Mew and Mewtwo fighting is a small part of it rather than the main plot and actually pretty well justified within the story, but it's definitely a precursor to the concept, especially as it played out in the international marketing of the movie, where posters prominently subtitled it "Mewtwo vs. Mew".) Unfortunately, these plots tend to be rather flimsy, and this movie is no exception.
The plot is set in motion by a Pokémon collector, Lawrence III, who wants to capture Lugia. An ancient prophecy foretells that when the balance between Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres is upset, Lugia will come out to stop their fight alongside a great trainer; thus, he plans to deliberately upset the balance in the hope that this will lure Lugia out of hiding. At the beginning of the film, he captures Moltres on its native Fire Island in the Orange Islands, using bombs and traps fired from his flying palace.
When Zapdos realizes Moltres is gone, it sees it as an opportunity to expand its territory, causing a great thunderstorm in the general area. As the balance of nature is upset, Pokémon around the world begin to sense that something is wrong and head as far as they can towards the Orange Islands, as if to prevent the oncoming disaster. Professor Oak will explain later in the movie that Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres maintain a very sensitive harmony that drives a crucial ocean current around the islands: Articuno's ice and Moltres's fire create water, and organic chemicals are synthesized when Zapdos's electricity powers chemical reactions. The disruption of that harmony upsets that important ocean current and may have devastating effects upon the global ecosystem.
Meanwhile, Ash and company have just arrived at a nearby island called Shamouti Island after a storm throws their boat off course, and by an amazing coincidence, there is an annual festival going on right now that revolves around the aforementioned prophecy. Part of the traditional celebrations includes a "festival maiden" picking a ceremonial Chosen One to represent the great trainer spoken of in the prophecy; the Chosen One will then be taken by boat to the legendary birds' islands, pick up a large jewel (a "treasure") from each of them, and gather them together on a special altar where the festival maiden will play a traditional song on a flute. (Technically the Japanese version does not use the term "Chosen One" - it only ever talks about "the great trainer" - but it gets awkward to say that a lot and I don't think there's a meaningful difference.)
As it happens, the festival maiden this year is a girl named Melody, who takes a liking to Ash the moment he arrives, and during the festivities she picks him as the Chosen One. It's supposed to be an easy ceremonial role, so he goes out on the boat alone with just the captain who brought them there to steer it, but as the Zapdos-induced storm intensifies, Melody soon regrets sending him out there and goes after him on a second boat with Misty and Tracey. The storm quickly becomes too violent to handle, but conveniently it ends up stranding all of them on Fire Island, where they reunite and Ash picks up the first treasure.
Just then, Zapdos arrives on the island to claim it as its own. Pikachu communicates with it through electric currents, learning of the territorial dispute, before Lawrence III attacks again. As he captures Zapdos, our heroes and Melody's boat are caught in a second trap as well and brought into his palace where Zapdos and Moltres are being kept. Lawrence III comes in to see them; when Misty asks why he doesn't use Pokéballs like a normal person, he says he is not a trainer but a collector, and there's no point in a collection if no one can see it. Then he releases them from their cage and tells them not to touch anything before he leaves to capture Articuno.
Naturally, Ash and company disregard his order and attempt to free Moltres. Tracey works out that Pikachu's Thunderbolt will split the water in Squirtle's Water Gun into hydrogen and oxygen before Charizard's Flamethrower makes the combination explode, and this successfully breaks Moltres's cage. It proceeds to Flamethrower Zapdos's cage, breaking it as well, and the two birds immediately blow a hole in the wall and begin to destroy the flying fortress in revenge. It crashes on Thunder Island, and Ash and company run out to escape. Just then, part of the ship crashes into the stone altar with the second "treasure", causing it to conveniently roll right in front of Ash, who grabs it. Two down, one to go.
As the birds start fighting with each other, Ash and company get back on the boat, which miraculously survived the fall down from the flying palace just fine and landed in a convenient body of water. They're about to plummet down a waterfall into the ocean, thanks to the birds' destructive attacks, when they're saved by a strange vortex of water extending from the ocean's surface, which carries them back to Shamouti Island and throws them off right next to the altar where all the treasures were to be placed. Ash puts the two he has already obtained there, but the random talking Slowking at the temple tells him he still has to get the final one, from Ice Island.
The vortex of water returns and reveals the supposed main Pokémon of the movie, Lugia, here to save the day... or maybe not. The legendary birds all frantically attack him for some reason, and he dodges and defends himself for a while, but eventually the birds manage to hit, and Lugia falls limply into the water, having accomplished exactly nothing.
Our heroes watch in horror, and Slowking tells them that only the Chosen One - the great trainer from the prophecy - can save the world now. Ash's friends quickly conclude that since Ash is the one who got the first two treasures, he must be the Chosen One.
Ash is skeptical, but the others insist that it has to mean him. When he asks what they should do, Melody remembers the myths and plays the flute, and as she does so, Lugia is magically revived as he is sinking into the ocean. He rises from the water again, thanks our heroes telepathically and tells them that playing the flute once all three treasures are on the altar will make Articuno, Zapdos and Moltres stop fighting, reiterating that only the Chosen One can do it.
Ash accepts his role with his Pokémon's support and heads to Ice Island. He starts off on foot, but soon thinks of using the wreck of the boat as a sled pulled by Charizard, Squirtle and Bulbasaur (how can Squirtle and Bulbasaur's tiny legs keep up with Charizard's flight?). Strangely, it doesn't occur to him to just fly on Charizard. Lugia keeps the birds off his back for a while, but his makeshift sled eventually capsizes, and he stands there looking hopeless until Team Rocket suddenly arrive on a lifeboat with a propeller attached to it to help (they've been following the gang for most of the movie, and they don't want the world to end any more than the protagonists). They successfully get Ash to the Ice Island temple, where he picks up the final treasure.
The birds arrive to attack them just as they're about to leave; they manage to escape while the birds conveniently shift their attention to each other, and this time Lugia tells Ash to just get on his back so they can run for it. Team Rocket also cling on at first, but then let go in a heroic sacrifice because they're weighing Lugia down (they shout "You're the main character!" as they fall, in one of my favorite moments of this movie).
Suddenly, as Lugia and Ash are approaching the temple, huge metal triangles shoot towards them! It's another one of Lawrence III's traps, and if you'd forgotten Lawrence III existed at this point, I don't blame you. It turns out his traps and the trap firing mechanism survived the crash of his airship, and he's been lying in wait ever since. Lugia manages to resist for long enough to shoot a Hyper Beam at the wreck for good measure, but is then dragged underwater, his flight restrained by the trap. Ash floats off Lugia's back, and the triangles simply break on their own, thus bringing Lawrence III's involvement in the plot of this movie to an end.
Ash and Pikachu surface near the island while Lugia sinks and mutters dramatically, "It's over." Apparently he has forgotten about the flute melody that magically revived him ten minutes ago. Misty goes down to rescue the unconscious Ash and wakes him up, and although he's a bit wobbly after all this, he walks up to the altar and places the last treasure where it belongs.
With all three treasures reunited, the altar starts to glow bright green and then oozes similarly green liquid into water canals cut into the floor, which turns the stone pillars around it into blue crystal. This is Melody's cue to go up to the altar and play her flute, and we see the legendary birds, who have already collapsed in exhaustion, look up as they hear the tune. The weather also starts to return to normal, which is quite odd considering the birds are not yet back on their designated islands; apparently the flute melody itself can fix the weather, regardless of what the birds are doing. The green glow envelops the entire ocean, and finally Lugia rises back out of the water in his signature vortex before the green disappears.
Lugia proceeds to offer Ash another ride on his back, just for the hell of it, while the ocean current somehow flows in a conspicuous CG arch in the sky above the islands (I don't think that's how ocean currents work). The legendary birds return to their respective islands, their previous differences forgotten. Lugia returns Ash to the temple and dives back into the ocean. Ash's mom and Professor Oak, who have been flying a helicopter to find Ash and company throughout the movie, finally find him and his mom makes a little speech about how she doesn't want him saving the world because it's dangerous and she doesn't want to lose him, but he tells her he really wants to be a Pokémon master and she accepts that.
Lawrence III, who has been watching the whole thing, stands in the wreck of his flying palace, silently picks up the Ancient Mew card that started his collection and looks dramatically towards the sky.
We are also reassured that Team Rocket are okay, as if they wouldn't be.
This is a very pretty movie; in particular, the fights between the birds and Lugia all look gorgeous, and the music is nice as well (like in the first movie, though, it's all replaced in the dub). It keeps up the pace pretty well, too; there's action going on throughout and a lot of it is pretty spectacular. All in all, it's decidedly not boring.
I also enjoyed the two little bits of fantasy science - Oak's explanation of how the three birds create life and Tracey's explanation of how water + fire + electricity = explosion. The birds' significance to the ecosystem in general was a fun, interesting touch that added to the stakes of the movie.
Finally, I appreciated that even though the movie set up a light pseudo-love triangle between Ash, Melody and Misty (I didn't go into this in the synopsis because it's irrelevant to the plot and Ash is completely oblivious to it throughout, but it's there), Melody and Misty aren't pitted against each other, but rather spend the movie growing to understand and respect each other. It's easy to make decent characters insufferable by reducing them to endless petty, mean-spirited squabbling about love interests, and I was very glad this movie avoided that in its brief treatment of romance.
The plot of this movie is unusually shaky, even for a Legendaries Randomly Fighting™ movie. To start with, it hinges on a huge, contrived coincidence: that Lawrence III just happened to decide to try to capture Lugia on the exact day that Shamouti Island is having an annual festival about the prophecy he's trying to fulfill. The prophecy doesn't reference any particular day, so there is no rational reason for the two to coincide. If he were shown to have just decided it'd be neat to do it on the day of the festival, I'd accept it just fine - he clearly does have a flair for the dramatic - but instead it's not addressed in any way; in fact, there's no indication he even knows there's a festival, and at the beginning it sounds like he just heads out to capture the birds the moment he's found out that the prophecy is referring to them. And nobody comments on the fact he's doing this on the one day they're having the festival at any point, either. It feels like we're simply supposed to take it as natural and given that of course the prophecy gets fulfilled on the day the annual festival is happening, when really it is nothing of the sort.
Moreover, the whole Chosen One deal in this movie is treated pretty strangely. Ash's friends and Lugia conclude he must be the Chosen One because he's the one who collected the first two treasures, and therefore the world depends on him to go fetch the last one. But Ash didn't collect the first two treasures because he had some sort of mystical super-treasure-collecting ability bestowed upon him by destiny; he collected the first two treasures because Melody asked him to as part of his ceremonial role in the festival, and he did so with great difficulty and a lot of help. If he is the Chosen One, then clearly all the prophecy means here is "somebody is going to collect all the treasures" - it doesn't say that person is some very special super-person who can do it all by themselves, and if it did, that would kind of automatically disqualify Ash. So why on earth do his friends just decide that since they figure he's the Chosen One, they can sit idly by while he risks his life trying to get to Ice Island? Not only might Ash need their help to do this - he does need help, and he has to get it from Team friggin' Rocket because all his friends insisted he had to go off on his own! They're not only bizarrely willing to have blind faith in a vague prophecy; they're also simply being terrible friends.
The dub makes the prophecy suggest slightly more explicitly that Ash is special by including a reference to his name, but even then, the callousness of staying behind instead of helping just because a prophecy vaguely indicates he can do it is pretty hard to swallow.
Then, the resolution of the plot is really arbitrary. Presumably the green glow that happens when you have the three treasures together and play the song somehow calms the birds' aggression (the eighth movie will later have a similar green glow serve a similar purpose in its backstory)... but why? What properly are these treasures, and where did they come from? What is their connection to the birds exactly? How and why are they activated by that melody? There is no sense of a proper mechanism behind any of this, not even a magical one; it just is, because the plot says so. The birds are fighting, and somehow Ash must stop them fighting because he's the main character, so there has to be some arbitrary thing he can do that arbitrarily makes them stop. It would be easy to dress this sort of thing up with worldbuilding and history that makes it feel natural and logical that of course all he needs to do is collect the treasures, but this movie doesn't really bother with that part, instead just lazily asking us to take its word for it. Worse, this means the actual territorial dispute between the birds is completely sidestepped - there's absolutely no addressing of the root cause.
In general, a lot of little contrivances in the service of the plot happen in this movie - just look at how often in this review I felt the need to call things "convenient". Things tend to just happen, not in order to make things more interesting or as a consequence of the situation or what the characters do, but simply because they need to happen to move the story along. This is not a great way to build a story; even aside from the repeated convenient happenings being unbelievable, it makes the film into more of an artificial, constructed series of events than a real plot.
In particular, the birds always seem to just attack whatever the plot wants them to attack. We're told they're fighting over territory, so it makes sense they're fighting each other, and destroying Lawrence III's fortress after he captured them makes sense - of course they're mad at him. But what on earth do they have against Lugia that makes them all immediately join together to attack him instead the moment he appears? Why are they all so bent on stopping Ash from getting to Ice Island, up until the point where suddenly they don't care anymore? This only makes sense if you regard the birds as flat antagonists who oppose the protagonists blindly until the plot needs them to stop doing so. Well, that or the birds know there's a prophecy that says Lugia and a great trainer will stop their fight, and their number one priority is to make sure that prophecy doesn't get fulfilled because they just really want to keep fighting forever, which not only makes little sense but requires a whole lot more self-awareness than they seem to possess.
Lawrence III has potential to be interesting, but unfortunately, his role is very clumsily handled. His purpose is first to set the plot in motion by capturing Moltres and Zapdos and then to provide a very brief, meaningless delay in its resolution near the end when he tries to capture Lugia again; in between and afterwards, he just sort of vanishes into a convenient plot hole. Why didn't he try to capture Lugia at any earlier point than there at the end, if his traps were still working? Earlier, why did he leave Ash and company alone, unrestrained and unmonitored with his priceless "collection", after all he'd done to obtain it? (Note that he specifically releases them from the cage they were caught in before leaving them there; it'd have been easier not to do so.)
Ultimately, he is simply more of a plot device than a character, which is a crying shame, because focusing on and developing him more as a character is perhaps the most obvious way to improve this movie. What if we got to really see the obsession that must drive him? Characters with a pathological fixation on a goal can be some of the most fascinating characters in fiction, and there are tons of ways that Lawrence III could have been the most compelling part of this movie, if only we'd gotten to see more of him. But instead, all we got was a guy with an airship who riles up the birds and is then unceremoniously shoved aside so that we can watch the legendaries fight.
Even Lugia, the supposed main Pokémon of the movie, ultimately doesn't get to do much here. When he first appears he is quickly defeated by the birds and has to be revived by the flute; then he keeps the birds away while Ash gets the last treasure and carries him back, which is respectable but not exactly awe-inspiring; then he gets caught in a trap and has to be revived by the flute again; and then he flies around with Ash for a bit after everything is over. All in all Lugia seems almost extraneous, which is no way to treat your star legendary.
Finally, the whole thing is just rather bland and clichéd, even if it were better executed. There's an ancient prophecy, the main character is the Chosen One spoken of in the prophecy, he must save the world by collecting the three objects of power and bringing them together - plots don't get a lot more standard than this, and there's not much of a twist on it here.
Unfortunately, I think this is pretty poor as the Pokémon movies go. The story and characters are both decidedly lackluster, with most of the movie's potential squandered in order to show more legendaries randomly fighting. It's very pretty to watch and definitely action-packed, but for me that just doesn't make up for it.
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