Rise of Darkrai 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

Among the Pokémon movies, this one was probably the biggest disappointment for me personally. While the eighth movie had given me high expectations for later Pokémon movies, I never thought the ninth movie looked all that interesting, so when it turned out to be pretty bad, it only shattered my very optimistic hopes that maybe they'd manage to make it good in spite of that. This one, though, I was excited for. Dialga and Palkia screwing with space and time? Awesome! You could make such a cool movie out of that! I went into it thinking maybe it'd be as good as the eighth one - and boy, did it not deliver. What I got instead was just the series' latest Legendaries Randomly Fighting™ movie, with a rehashed plot and a lot of sadly wasted potential.

The movie begins with a young man reading from the diary of an architect named Godey (obviously a reference to Antoni Gaudí) about beings that should never meet, initially shown with an ominous glare on his glasses but then revealed to be a kind-looking dork. His name is Tonio, he is Godey's great-grandson, and he is a scientist.

Suddenly, the room begins to shake and the monitors in the room begin to give off alarms; an hourglass falls from a table and shatters. The disturbance is because Dialga and Palkia have met and are currently clashing in a pocket dimension full of Unown. After a back-and-forth of attacks, Dialga's Roar of Time hits the pearl on Palkia's left arm and cracks it. The injured Palkia flees, and Dialga follows. In the twelfth movie, we will learn that the reason for their conflict was (yet again) that they each thought the other was infringing on their dimensional 'territory', but for now, the cause remains unknown.

Meanwhile, Ash and company - this time Ash, Brock and Dawn, since this is a Diamond and Pearl movie - are headed for Alamos Town, where Dawn is hoping to participate in a Contest. They get a ride there with a young woman named Alice in her hot air balloon, powered by the flames of her Chimchar. She studies music, but she's also a part-time guide, and as they approach the town, she lets them get a good look at Alamos Town's famous Space-Time Tower, designed by the architect Godey. The tower is actually two connected clocktowers in a shape resembling a lyre; one tower symbolizes space and the other time. The space-time disturbances of the legendary Pokémon's fight cause the balloon to shudder, and although nobody gets hurt, Alice offers to guide the gang around town by way of apology.

After a sightseeing walk and some battles with local trainers, Alice takes them to Godey's gardens, another of the famous architect's creations. In the garden, Ash, Dawn and Brock's Pokémon play with some wild ones, but a fight breaks out between them, and soon the Pokémon have split into two factions with tensions rising. However, Alice sees them and begins to play a melody on a leaf, and the Pokémon instantly resolve their disagreements upon hearing the song. Alice says her grandmother taught her this tune.

Suddenly, a Gallade appears, frantically asking Alice to follow it. Ash and company recall their Pokémon and follow along as well. In another section of the garden, various stone pillars have been destroyed or partly dissolved, almost as if some strange power has half-melted and twisted them. A fancily-dressed man, Baron Alberto, appears and explains that the Pokémon Darkrai did this; Brock remarks that he's heard it's a Pokémon that can give people nightmares.

At a rustling in a nearby bush, Baron Alberto sends out his Lickilicky and orders it to Hyper Beam the bush, thinking it's Darkrai. While we're made to assume it was Team Rocket who were hit, it was actually Tonio, the scientist from the beginning of the movie. Alice rushes to help him, and he explains he's been investigating some spatial irregularities that are going on. He examines one of the pillars. It becomes clear that Alice and Tonio have been mutually pining for each other since they were children, but Baron Alberto has proposed to Alice and insists she is going to be his wife despite her repeated rejections. Dawn gets a nice moment of shoving Baron Alberto away from Alice and telling him to leave her alone, but he dismisses her.

The world starts to ripple with waves of spatial distortion again, and another pillar in the garden is cut in half as the sun is shrouded in shadow and Darkrai floats up out of the ground, warning the humans not to come near. Baron Alberto has his Lickilicky attack it, but Darkrai can turn himself into a shadow and easily evades the attack that way. Darkrai counterattacks, but Lickilicky dodges as well, and the attack hits Ash instead. He is pulled into a dark void, then emerges into a world of muted colors, alone. He walks, calling out for his friends, but instead of following him, his shadow only lengthens as he moves. He sees fuzzy visions of Palkia before they disappear, leaving Darkrai standing before him. He tries to send out Turtwig to fight him, but the Pokéball dissolves into thin air as he throws it. Darkrai begins to sink into the ground, and Ash sees Pikachu behind him, but the ground around Darkrai sinks with him, and Pikachu is pulled towards the hole. Ash naturally jumps in after him, and the hole closes in all around them...

Ash is awoken by a Thundershock; all that was a nightmare induced by Darkrai. He's really lying with Pikachu in a hospital bed, with his friends and a Nurse Joy by his bedside. Joy and Tonio explain that Darkrai is hated and shunned by people and Pokémon alike for the nightmares that he brings. Ash is angry and wants to battle Darkrai, but Alice points out that Baron Alberto attacked first back there.

Tonio, preoccupied with the space-time disturbances, absent-mindedly leaves to read more of Godey's diary. Between the pages, he finds a picture of the old architect with Alice's grandmother Alicia as a child. The diary explains that Alicia came across Darkrai in the garden when he was injured after fighting with wild Pokémon. By treating him with kindness, Alicia earned Darkrai's trust, and Darkrai settled in the garden. Godey then explains in the diary that the nightmares he had told him what to do, and that he must leave behind the "Oración" for the sake of the future. Unfortunately, Tonio has no idea what this means.

Later, after Alice has given Ash and the gang a tour of the Space-Time Tower, they go down to Tonio's laboratory in the basement to see him. When they get there, there are papers strewn around the floor, and Tonio's feet can be seen lying ominously on the floor behind the desk; Alice rushes to make sure that he's okay, but he'd only fallen asleep. Tonio shows Alice the photo of Godey and Alicia that he found, and she turns it over to find music notes and a leaflike symbol. In the lab, there are also a number of metallic disks with grooves in the bottom, and Ash asks about them. These are "sound disks", musical records that can be played in the Space-Time Tower by placing a given disk into special circular indents in a mechanism located on the top floor of the tower. Ash and company get a demonstration of how to play a record, Alice and Tonio apparently being content to play one heard the whole town over on the whim of some tourists.

After they've left, as Ash, Dawn and Brock are getting ready to battle some local trainers, Tonio's space-time-measuring instruments flare up like there's no tomorrow, and a strange glow envelopes the town for a short while, appearing to emanate from in between the two towers of the Space-Time Tower - but then it vanishes, and everything appears to go back to normal. Just then, however, Darkrai emerges from the ground again and tells them to get out. Baron Alberto tries to have his Lickilicky attack him again, but Darkrai dodges and puts almost every Pokémon in the area to sleep with Dark Void, again telling them to get out. Thanks to the spatial irregularities caused by Dialga and Palkia's fight, ghostly projections of the Pokémon's nightmares begin to appear, floating through the air, as Ash and Pikachu chase after Darkrai. Ash tells Darkrai that he'll be the one getting out of there, but Darkrai responds that that's not it. Baron Alberto catches up with them and tries to attack Darkrai again, but Darkrai easily puts his Lickilicky to sleep too and vanishes again. Somehow, because Lickilicky is dreaming about being Baron Alberto, he transforms into a Lickilicky. Don't even try to make sense of this.

As Ash has returned to where Nurse Joy and his friends are taking care of the dreaming Pokémon, the trainers from before appear to tell them that the town has become surrounded by unclearable fog, trapping them all inside (Ash attempts to run across a bridge leading into the fog, only to find himself somehow emerging back out the same way he came). As always, Baron Alberto blames Darkrai and gets an army of people to help look for him. Alice, however, believes Darkrai didn't cause this, and Tonio backs her up by explaining that Darkrai once saved Alice's life when they were little by catching her when she fell from a cliff (Alice had always assumed Tonio was the one who saved her and looks almost disappointed to learn that it wasn't).

Tonio goes back to his lab to investigate further. By unrealistically magnifying some video footage of when the strange glow appeared around the town, he discovers that Palkia was there in the middle of the source of the glow, between the spires of the Space-Time Tower. He shows Ash and company, and Ash immediately recognizes Palkia as the thing from his nightmare. He also realizes that Darkrai was trying to warn them about Palkia the whole time.

Outside, Darkrai is actually trying to fight Palkia, who is still in that space between the spires, only invisible. As Darkrai attacks its barrier, Palkia becomes visible again, and the sky abruptly turns into a nightmarish vortex: the entire town has been transported into an extra-dimensional space, separate from the unstable dimension they'd been pulled into by Palkia before, which had been responsible for manifesting the Pokémon's nightmares. True enough, the Pokémon in town begin to wake up, and the manifestations of their dreams fade (including Baron Alberto turning back to normal).

As Darkrai and Palkia continue their battle, Dialga bursts out of the sky to attack Palkia as well. Parts of the town are now starting to dissolve into glowing, purple dust. Unlike Palkia's manipulation of space, Dialga's time-manipulation is here limited only to roaring and making the clock in the Space-Time Tower anticlimactically turn backwards for a few seconds.

Tonio recites what he read from the diary in the beginning about beings that should never meet and their wrath engulfing the town, revealing that this is Godey talking about that dream he had (which, you'll remember, made him leave behind the "Oración"). Dialga and Palkia continue to fight and the town continues to dissolve; Alice tries to tell them to stop fighting, but nearly becomes collateral damage as the clashing legendaries nearly crash into her. Yet again, though, she is saved by Darkrai, who appears between them and blasts Dialga and Palkia away.

Darkrai continues trying to fight the two other legendaries and orders them to get out, but Dialga and Palkia attack together and blast him off into the garden, and our heroes rush after him. Alice kneels by his side and asks if he's okay, and he calls her Alicia. She explains that's her grandmother, and they apologize for misunderstanding his intentions. At this, Darkrai sinks into the ground without further comment, the way he likes to.

As the fight continues, the city continues to dissolve. Tonio detects with his scientific instruments that it's because the dimensional wall is breaking down. He thinks back to what he read in the diary about the Oración and laments out loud that he doesn't know what it is. Alice, surprised, tells him that the Oración is the leaf flute tune that her grandmother taught her, the one she used to make the Pokémon stop fighting near the beginning of the movie. You can probably see where this is going.

They realize that there must be a sound disk for the Oración that can be played in the Space-Time Tower and hurry there. The sound disks are not labeled, but Alice recognizes the right one because it has the same symbol that was on the music notes on the back of the photo of Godey and Alicia (which are of course notes for the Oración). While Brock helps Nurse Joy evacuate the dissolving areas, the others take Alice's balloon up to get to the top of the tower, but then some of Dialga and Palkia's attacks break the balloon's basket and Dawn falls onto the outside of the tower's stairwell. Ash follows with the sound disk, and they get inside and continue upstairs the hard way while their Pokémon repel Dialga and Palkia's attacks and make makeshift ice steps where the stairs begin to dissolve. In the meantime, Alice gets out of the crashing balloon only to nearly fall off a bridge, but Tonio, hanging from his Drifblim who rescued him when he fell, manages to grab onto her hand and save her.

Darkrai gets badly hurt again and is unconscious in the garden when Alice and Tonio arrive there. Alice's voice asking if Darkrai is all right triggers a flashback to when Alicia helped him. As Dialga and Palkia's fight rages on, Alice pleads for them to stop, triggering another flashback to when Alicia told Darkrai he could stay in the garden for as long as he liked because it belonged to everyone. Dialga and Palkia charge powerful attacks, and Tonio says these attacks might destroy this space altogether if they clash; suddenly, Darkrai shoots upward and comes between their attacks, ordering them to stop because this is everyone's garden! He successfully neutralizes the blasts and keeps Dialga and Palkia from attacking by surrounding all of them with a dark barrier for a bit, but then he groans, unable to keep it up anymore, and Dialga and Palkia attack him again. Darkrai dissolves into the same purple dust as the town; everyone is stunned by his sacrifice.

Ash and Dawn finally make it to the top of the tower and place the Oración sound disk into the clockwork (for some reason, it's a little bigger than all the normal sound disks and has to be placed in a different slot in the mechanism, but they figure that out quickly) as Tonio explains to us that the attacks Dialga and Palkia are preparing now will truly destroy the town if they clash. Unfortunately, however, the power is out in the tower, and Ash and Dawn despair until they realize that they have Pokémon that can generate electricity.

Pikachu and Dawn's Pachirisu Thundershock the machine with all their might, and the towers begin to play the Oración as everyone looks on in amazement - including, of course, Dialga and Palkia, who conveniently have still not used the attacks they were preparing a couple of minutes ago. Decorative spokes fold out of the Space-Time Tower, begin to sprout flowers and then form huge golden wings of light around them. Meanwhile, Palkia's cracked pearl is healed by the apparent restorative power of the Oración. The two legendaries' differences are now magically settled; Dialga disappears, and after a bit of a rant from Ash, Palkia restores the city to normal again, bringing back everything that dissolved and placing the city back into the real world where it's supposed to be.

As the sun sets, everyone stands looking over the garden, mourning the loss of Darkrai. When they turn to walk away, though, a shadow appears on the cliffside, and Pikachu turns their attention to it, astonished. Turns out Darkrai's standing alive and well on the top of the Space-Time Tower. Everything else that dissolved was restored by Palkia, after all; why not him too? In her relief, Alice leans up to Tonio, who is dorkily happy.

During the end credits, we see snapshots of Dawn's Contest; she appears to place third. Because we definitely hadn't forgotten all about the Contest thing by this point.

The Good

This movie has some nice music in it, as well as some neat concepts and imagery. The Space-Time Tower is pretty and the clockwork mechanism playing the sound disks is neat. Ash's nightmare is genuinely unsettling, as were the twisted pillars in the garden. The heroes' Pokémon get a bit more to do than in most of the movies; there's even a bit where Brock's Croagunk gets a hero moment.

The little romance plotline between Alice and Tonio is cute enough and gives these characters a bit more of an actual story of their own than most of the secondary human characters we get in the Pokémon movies, while still remaining pretty much in the background without distracting from the actual plotline.

And the moment where Dawn shoves Baron Alberto and tells him to leave Alice alone was definitely good and may possibly be my actual favorite part of this movie. Baron Alberto is the worst.

Overall, there is a core here that I do like: Darkrai, a Pokémon with sinister-seeming powers who's continually feared and ostracized, finds acceptance at last when a girl shows him kindness and tells him he can live in this garden because it belongs to everyone; Darkrai becomes attached to the garden/town/its people, then becomes aware of danger, and tries his awkward, fumbling best to communicate that to people, but fails until it's too late; with no other options, he puts his own body on the line to fight off the danger, because this is everyone's garden and he has to protect it, and ends up sacrificing his life to do it. Unfortunately, though, I don't think the emotional potential of this story is fully realized within the actual movie: I don't feel anything when Darkrai dies, only if I extract his story out in isolation and imagine if it were better told.

The Bad

Oh boy, where to begin.

First of all, the "legendaries fight, another tries to stop them but can't, magical song courtesy of Ash's actions calms them down" plot is kind of a rehash of the second movie, whose plot was never very good to begin with. There's still no actual reason the magical song should calm the legendaries, no actual resolution to the root cause of their conflict (though that's not even properly explored here at all). Dialga and Palkia are not characters with any real sense that they have minds and motivations and feelings; they're just plot devices arbitrarily destroying things to provide a conflict and stakes for the movie. Palkia is nominally hurt - but there's no sense within the movie's story that Palkia is actually hurting, desperate or in pain. There's no way to care about Dialga and Palkia or their conflict.

(To boot, the Dialga/Palkia fight never even manages to be very engaging as a fight, particularly since their powers don't see any actual use. While the town is dissolving around them and we get those space ripples, Palkia doesn't seem to actually fight using its space powers at all, and likewise, Dialga's time manipulation is limited to a single shot of the Space-Time Tower's clock going haywire. Otherwise, they just act like generic Pokémon shooting beams at each other, which is incredibly disappointing for such a fascinating pair of Pokémon.)

Darkrai, meanwhile, is a character - but he's a pretty strange and frustrating one. There's a nice core in his story, as I mentioned above, but the movie isn't focused enough and doesn't manage to truly make his character make sense.

Darkrai can speak telepathically - but he seems unable to clearly communicate the urgent message that he desperately wants to get across. His efforts to warn the townspeople are incredibly cryptic, involving giving Ash a creepy nightmare where Palkia vaguely appears in one part, putting a lot of Pokémon to sleep while telling everyone to "Get out!" and "Don't interfere!", and then going "Stop! That's not it!" without further explanation when Ash confronts him. At times it seems like Darkrai may just not be very good at speaking telepathically at all and can only say a scattered few phrases that he's heard repeatedly - I'm sure he's often told to "Get out!" - but then the "Stop! That's not it!" seems to show he can communicate spontaneously to at least some extent, so why can't he shout something like "Danger!" that actually sounds like he's trying to give a warning? Couldn't he have shown Ash a vision of Palkia attacking Alamos Town instead of just of Palkia with no further context? I think there absolutely could have been coherent ways to show Darkrai having communication problems, but the movie doesn't do that. Instead, it just feels like Darkrai isn't really trying to communicate well - or rather, like the writers had no idea how to convincingly write Darkrai being misunderstood while genuinely doing his best to help.

People making things needlessly difficult for no reason, just when being straightforward and clearly understood should be especially urgent, is something of a running theme in this movie, unfortunately. Godey the architect managed to decipher the prophetic nightmare that Darkrai gave him and realize that the town would be attacked by legendaries that could only be calmed by playing this magical melody on a truly gigantic instrument - so he told no one, was vague and cryptic about it even in his private diary, designed the gigantic instrument so that to play it you need to get to the top of a huge tower with no elevator in it, distinguished the magical melody sound disk only by a symbol scribbled on the back of a random photograph, and arbitrarily made that sound disk different from all the others and required putting it in a different place in the mechanism, just as an extra snag. This would make sense as the actions of a man trying to construct some sort of test, and theoretically makes for a fun series of riddles for the main characters to solve - but Godey wasn't trying to create a test; he was trying to save his town from destruction. Why on earth would he do this?

All in all, Alamos Town is only saved against overwhelming odds in this movie: Tonio happens to have read the diary and grabbed the photograph, Alice happens to be there and notice the symbol on the photograph, the person who read the diary only happens to wonder aloud about the "Oración" while in the vicinity of somebody who would know what it was, they happen to look at the photograph and find the right sound disk, and the kids happen to manage to get to the top of the tower in time, but only because they happen to be with a person who owns a balloon. Godey designing his plan to require this kind of contrived happenstance to work is ludicrous; again, it's almost like he's trying to make this difficult - or rather, again, like the writers didn't know how to make it difficult for the protagonists while making Godey's actions reasonable.

The other big problem here is the pacing. The movie is obviously from the start building up to Dialga and Palkia's fight entering the town - but it doesn't actually happen until fifty minutes in, and every time I watch this movie that wait feels excruciatingly long. Up until that point, we have exposition, Baron Alberto blaming Darkrai for everything, some brief fights with Darkrai where he's needlessly cryptic and just puts the Pokémon to sleep, and Pokémon having nightmares. The whole ordeal with the externally manifested nightmares, while it could have been a neat concept, feels like padding with no real meaning for the storyline and could easily have been cut out altogether with zero impact on the rest of the movie; so could Baron Alberto's efforts to hunt down Darkrai, and really Baron Alberto in general, who's fairly prominent in the first half of the movie but then just kind of fades out of it and stops being relevant. (Same, as so often, with Team Rocket.) The story does want to make it clear that Darkrai is misunderstood and persecuted by most people, but it could establish this in much less time and with less repetition.

Then there's Darkrai's resurrection. It does make sense that Palkia could bring him back the way that it could bring the whole town back; we saw Darkrai dissolve into purple dust the same way the town was, after all. However, that doesn't change that it's a real cop-out as far as the impact of the movie goes, after we've just had a whole scene of everyone mourning Darkrai complete with sad flashbacks to just about everything he did in the entire movie. To boot, the end credits song is about dealing with loss and letting go, which gives me the overall impression that bringing Darkrai back at the end was some kind of hasty executive decision late in the development of the movie. It's cheapening and just detracts from the story overall.

Conclusion

All in all, this is a movie of squandered potential. There are many things here that could have been good, but ultimately none of them are executed well enough. Even if you're willing to look past the rehashedness and nonsensicalities of the plot, the poor pacing just makes it a drag, and even the spectacle that a Dialga/Palkia fight ought to be isn't really there. Unfortunately, I think this is one of the series' worst entries as it stands.

Page last modified March 25 2019 at 21:01 GMT