Voice of the Forest 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
As the Pokémon movies go, this is a pretty archetypal one. It establishes a plot pattern that will be very common from here on out: there's an evil, callous villain who wants to control a legendary Pokémon's power for their own sinister purposes, and Ash and friends must stop them and save the legendary from their grasp. In this case, the legendary is Celebi, and the villain is one of Team Rocket's most dangerous members, the Iron-Masked Marauder.
At the beginning of the film, a young boy named Sammy is traveling through a forest when he's stopped by a local woman, Towa. She warns him of a legend in her village: when you hear "the voice of the forest", it means the forest's guardian is about to travel through time, so if you don't want to be dragged with it to a different time, you must stay still until it passes. Sammy promises to be careful, and Towa gives him a loaf of bread for his journey.
As he's traveling, however, all of a sudden Celebi comes flying past him, followed by a Houndoom and Scyther. They belong to a Pokémon hunter, who has been chasing Celebi for a while now. Sammy follows and soon finds Celebi's pursuers pinning it helplessly down on the ground. Horrified, he shouts at them to stop, and that distraction gives Celebi time to produce some vines from the ground to entangle its captors. It tries to fly away, but it's too weak to get very far, and Sammy catches it in his arms as it falls.
The Pokémon hunter quickly arrives on a motorcycle and orders him to hand Celebi over, explaining that he is a hunter who catches rare Pokémon and sells them to the highest bidder. Sammy protests that buying and selling Pokémon like property is wrong and runs for it, still carrying Celebi in his arms. It stirs and cries out, and suddenly all the trees in the forest start to emit a strange light and an ethereal sound: the voice of the forest. Celebi begins to glow brightly, and then it and Sammy vanish in a flash of white light, leaving only Sammy's sketchbook lying on the ground.
Forty years later, we see a picture of the forest on a wall and then pan down to a worn photo of the hunter standing by his motorcycle with his Houndoom - a cute moment humanizing a throwaway villainous character that may actually be one of my favorite parts of this movie. The hunter himself, now old and gray, is thrown against the wall, terrified; a huge, muscular man with a goatee and a strange yellow mask covering his face grabs him by the chin and demands to know where Celebi escaped forty years ago. This is the Iron-Masked Marauder, and he's accompanied by a Sneasel. They're in a trailer of some sort, presumably the hunter's home; the place has been ransacked, with toppled furniture and empty bottles strewn around the floor.
The hunter refuses to tell him, and the Marauder drags him outside, where the Pokémon he's captured are held in cages. The Marauder throws him on the ground in front of a cage holding a timid-looking Tyranitar. His Sneasel slashes the bars of the cage to let the Tyranitar out, and the Marauder takes out a strange black Pokéball and captures it with it. This, he explains, is a Dark Ball: it turns the Pokémon it captures into a soulless monster while powering it up. When he releases the Tyranitar again, it no longer looks timid; it roars in fury, and when he tells it to destroy the place, it obeys.
The hunter begs the Iron-Masked Marauder to stop it and swears to tell him where Celebi was in the forest. The Marauder lets out the most stereotypical of evil laughs before we fade to the movie's title screen.
Meanwhile, Ash, Misty and Brock are on a ferry, naturally near that same forest, when a man from the ferry offers to take them to his village on his boat that turns into an airship. They intend to just continue on into the forest from the village, but as they're leaving, they're confronted by an old woman with some oddly familiar hair: it's Towa, the same woman who stopped Sammy forty years ago. She and her granddaughter Diana explain to them the same legend of the voice of the forest that she told to Sammy.
As they continue into the forest, the trees begin to glow again with that same mysterious sound, and Sammy and Celebi appear on the ground a short way ahead. Ash and company don't notice Celebi, who hides after they've arrived, but they bring the unconscious Sammy back to the village, where he comes to, disoriented. Towa recognizes him as the boy that disappeared in the forest forty years ago. She gives him back his sketchpad, now looking old and worn, and explains he must have traveled forty years into the future. At this, Sammy remembers Celebi and asks frantically where it is, and Towa tells them that Celebi is the forest's guardian, who travels through time and lives by the Life Lake in the forest.
Sammy remembers that Celebi was hurt, so he immediately stands up to try to find it; Ash, Misty and Brock of course insist on coming with him. Eventually they find Celebi lying in a hole under a tree, after noticing wild Pokémon had gathered around it. At first it tries to attack them, fearful of humans after its experience with the hunter, but they tell it they only want to be friends, and Celebi warily allows them to pick it up. They run with Celebi back towards the village, but are interrupted first by Jessie, James and Meowth (they fall out of a tree while doing their motto, and Ash and company simply ignore them and keep going) and then by the Iron-Masked Marauder in a giant walking mecha, who demands that they leave Celebi and go away. He sends out the dark Tyranitar from before and it fires a Hyper Beam at Ash and co. They run for it as smoke suddenly fills the area: James, annoyed that somebody was stealing "their" targets, has sent his Weezing out to stop the intruder. The Tyranitar quickly blasts the smoke away, and as the Rocket trio actually see the Iron-Masked Marauder, they recognize him: he's a really high-ranking member of Team Rocket, and they're big fans.
The Iron-Masked Marauder sends his Scizor and Sneasel after Ash and company just as Misty manages to injure her leg. Sammy and Ash team up to fight the two: Sammy sends out a Charmeleon in an old-fashioned Pokéball who fights the Sneasel while Ash sends out Bayleef to fight the Scizor (why is it that Ash keeps showing such reckless disregard for types?). They win quickly, and for some reason they tie Scizor and Sneasel to the rocks there, where the Iron-Masked Marauder later finds them. Don't ask me where they got the rope.
Ash and company get lost in the forest soon after this thanks to spontaneously appearing mist, but a wild Ursaring and Teddiursa show them the way onwards out of regard for Celebi. Later the role of guide is taken over by a Stantler, and then by a Furret, who leads them to the Life Lake where Celebi lives. Sammy walks into the water with Celebi, and it dives into the lake, where the water fully heals it. Now back in perfect health, Celebi is immediately energetic and playful. It takes Ash and Sammy on a telekinetic flight over the lake and surrounding forest, heals Misty's leg with a touch, and shows them where to find some delicious berries that it loves.
That night, they camp in the forest, and Sammy sketches a picture of Pikachu and Celebi sleeping side by side by a tree stump. Ash wakes up and they talk a little. Sammy says he was actually traveling to decide if he wanted to be a trainer or not when Celebi whisked him away into the future and that his mother is probably worried about him. He asks Ash about his mom, and Ash realizes she is probably worrying too, gets hungry thinking about her cooking, and they share that 40-year-old bread given to Sammy before he met Celebi. Pikachu and Celebi wake up, and together the four of them watch in wonder as Metapod in the trees up ahead begin to glow white and evolve (interestingly, not by having the cocoon rupture and a Butterfree crawl out, as when Ash's own Metapod evolved, but by the glowing cocoon reshaping itself into a Butterfree, the way we see most Pokémon evolutions work), before climbing a tree and watching the sunrise from it.
Later, they continue traveling towards the village, but are then ambushed by Team Rocket and the Iron-Masked Marauder, who are now working together - nominally, at least. The Marauder manages to snatch Celebi away and capture it in a Dark Ball. Immediately, the local wild Pokémon turn against him. A flock of Pidgey attacks him, which gives Ash the chance to nab the Dark Ball from him, but when Ash has fallen to the ground, clutching the ball, the Marauder steps on his hands until he passes out, releasing the ball. More wild Pokémon gather to surround the Iron-Masked Marauder, but he sends out Celebi from the Dark Ball and orders it to attack them, and it blindly obeys, its eyes empty.
The Iron-Masked Marauder makes it show him more of its power while he laughs. Celebi starts to form a huge sphere of broken twigs and leaves around itself, sucking in Jessie of Team Rocket as well, while Diana and Towa notice the commotion from afar and come flying on the boat-airship to pick up Ash and co. James and Meowth manage to grab onto a rope on the airship to escape with them, but they're worried about Jessie.
Meanwhile, up on a nearby mountain stands a CGI Suicune, looking very conspicuously CG, before it runs down the mountainside, still looking very conspicuously CG.
While our heroes escape, Celebi has created a thick, also conspicuously CG defensive sphere with spikes sticking out of it around itself. The Iron-Masked Marauder stands on top of it like the king of the world as it glides through the forest, toppling the trees in its path. Jessie is held captured upside-down by tentacle-like vines inside the sphere, and the Marauder explains that he wants her to be a witness to his awesome power. He orders Celebi to destroy some more, and the conspicuously CG defensive sphere transforms into a conspicuously CG giant mecha in the shape of some sort of a demonic skeletal Charizard-winged Celebi with mantis arms, which then fires a huge Hyper Beam at the Life Lake.
Jessie, struggling in her bonds, says she understands Celebi's power now and he should hurry up and take it to Giovanni. But the Marauder only laughs and declares that since he now has Celebi, he doesn't need to answer to some pesky boss of Team Rocket; he can easily take over the world by himself.
Ash and company are flying above in the boat-airship and realize Celebi is in there before the Iron-Masked Marauder notices them and orders Celebi to destroy them. The Conspicuously CG Giant Mecha fires a beam at one of the boat-airship's two balloons, and they crash in the lake, where it shoots another beam at them. They survive unharmed, though, and wash up on the shore of the lake. Ash gets Pikachu to try to fire a Thunderbolt at the Conspicuously CG Giant Mecha, but it's utterly unaffected, and the Marauder orders it to attack them again. The mecha starts to charge a Hyper Beam, ready to fire it at Ash and Sammy.
Suddenly, Suicune! The other legendary in this movie conveniently appears in the nick of time and snatches up Ash, Sammy and Pikachu onto its back just before the beam would have blown them to smithereens. The Iron-Masked Marauder sends out that Tyranitar from earlier, intending to capture Suicune as well, but Brock sends out his Onix to fight the Tyranitar while Suicune jumps up on the Conspicuously CG Giant Mecha's back. From there, they can see Celebi inside, and Ash tries to call out to it, but it only shakes Suicune off. The Tyranitar throws Brock's Onix down, but Suicune stops it with a Bubblebeam, and Onix manages to throw the Tyranitar into the lake before fainting. Suicune instead fires another Bubblebeam at the Conspicuously CG Giant Mecha and tries to run back up onto its back, but some tentacle-vines grab it before Celebi hits them with some sort of dark lightning. The Iron-Masked Marauder laughs evilly as Ash and Sammy fall down off Suicune's back, but Jessie - still tied upside-down inside the mecha - manages to grab them through a gap in the mecha's head and pull them up. She tells them that Celebi is somewhere above her, and they thank her and climb further up.
When they reach where Celebi is, they start trying to talk to it and remind it of its true self while it strikes them with more dark lightning, and it struggles desperately against the Dark Ball's power, remembering flashes of the good times they had together earlier in the movie. Finally, it snaps out of it, and Celebi's Dark Ball self-destructs in the Iron-Masked Marauder's hand while the Conspicuously CG Giant Mecha falls apart over the Life Lake. Celebi levitates Ash and Sammy out of there before fainting in mid-air just above the surface of the lake.
They meet Misty, Brock, Towa, Diana and the guy from the ferry at the beginning by the bank of the lake, but by then Celebi is starting to look suspiciously crumpled and withered: it's dying, and Towa explains that this is probably because of all the damage that has been done to the forest and the lake. This time, submerging it in the lake doesn't work to heal it, even after Suicune tries to purify the water with its power. Everyone is devastated. Ash makes a last-ditch attempt to feed it some of those berries it liked, but Celebi's lifeless body doesn't react. Sammy bitterly asks why Celebi has to die when none of this was Celebi's fault. Everyone starts to cry, even the wild Pokémon and Suicune, and for a curious moment there's even a close-up of Ash's tears falling onto Celebi's body, as if they're about to pull the same deus ex machina as the first movie. But the tears don't help this time around.
Instead, all of a sudden, a glowing light appears in mid-air, the forest glows, and a swarm of Celebi burst out from the light, levitate the dying Celebi into the air and fly in circles around it as it glows with a blue light and is revived after all. Whether this is the same Celebi from different times or whether there are actually many Celebi is unclear, but Sammy at least interprets it as Celebi having a lot of friends. The swarm of Celebi disappears back where they came from, and the revived Celebi happily flies around the lake...
...until suddenly hands reach up out of the water to grab it. It's the Iron-Masked Marauder, who has somehow been hiding in the lake all this time without coming up to breathe. He also somehow has a working jetpack on his back, and he takes off into the air, but Ash runs up and latches on to his legs as he ascends. While the Marauder tries to kick him away, Ash tells Pikachu to use a Thunderbolt on the jetpack, which it does, causing it to explode. They all fall, but Celebi uses its levitation powers yet again to save Ash and Pikachu.
Meanwhile, the Iron-Masked Marauder has a fall that ought to leave him splattered across the ground with every bone in his body broken, but in accordance with cartoon physics, he's mostly fine. (His mask falls off, though, revealing him as a hilariously average, kind of dorky-looking guy.) Towa, Diana, the guy from the ferry and a swarm of wild Pokémon surround him, and he tries to beg for forgiveness before a bunch of Bug Pokémon wrap him in String Shot and Towa laughs, saying the forest clearly won't forgive him. This is the last we see of him, which is kind of ominous, but we're probably not meant to imagine he gets torn apart and eaten by all those wild Pokémon. Probably.
Finally, Celebi takes Sammy back to his own time after a heartfelt goodbye between him and Ash. Somewhat nonsensically, they swear they will always be friends before Celebi whisks him away, even knowing they will probably never see each other again and having taken no measures to ever be able to do so.
Back in his own time, Sammy wakes up on the forest floor near the shrine where he originally disappeared, and the younger Towa appears to ask him if he's okay. He cryptically tells her he was just having a really wonderful dream. There is a time paradox here, by the way; in the present, Towa said he merely vanished forty years ago and she kept his sketchpad for him, but now that he's back in his own time, he doesn't disappear at all and he keeps his sketchpad.
We see Jessie lying on her back in the Life Lake, and James and Meowth come along on a raft to save her before the Tyranitar from before destroys the raft and swims away. The trio are left lying in the water - but they don't mind, because the water is great and they're back together again. Aww. We also see the Iron-Masked Marauder's Scizor and Sneasel standing together by the bank of the lake and then walking away. The movie is probably implying that the Dark Balls have been destroyed and thus all of the Marauder's Pokémon are freed and can go on their merry way, but nothing is made explicit.
The end credits start, and we see Ash, Misty and Brock leaving the village on the boat-airship. Then we see Professor Oak's lab, where Oak and Tracey are rearranging some old stuff and cleaning up; in a stack of dusty books, Tracey finds an old, worn sketchbook with some suspiciously familiar sketches in it...
Yes, this means what you think it means. "Sammy" was young Professor Samuel Oak after all. It's a delightfully subtle detail that the movie avoids shoving in your face by leaving it as an easily-overlooked hint in the end credits. Of course, when the movie was dubbed, 4Kids decided this was too subtle for the kids to get, so they had the original studio animate a special scene at the end of the movie, as well as reanimate another scene to fit in extra dialogue, to really bring the point home.
This movie does have some things going for it. Aside from the cheesy evil laughs and boring world-takeover ambitions, the Iron-Masked Marauder is actually not a bad villain. In particular, he feels starkly more sick, twisted and threatening than your average Pokémon villain because of his cold willingness to engage in direct human-on-human physical violence. In this movie, we see him both forcefully step on Ash's hands until he passes out and later repeatedly try to kick him in the head in the jetpack scene. The unusual brutality of these scenes makes him pretty memorable as an antagonist and raises the perceived stakes of the movie.
I like the subtlety of the revelation that Sammy is Professor Oak (sadly, the dub ditches that subtlety). Rather than trying to capitalize on the fact this movie is telling a backstory for a major character, it's left as a little bonus treat for those viewers who sit through the credits and put two and two together. It gives the actual story room to breathe on its own terms as simply a story about this kid named Sammy wanting to help Celebi, and I think the movie is better for it. The fact he is Professor Oak, though, is a fun twist that makes you look at the anime in a new light: did he move to Pallet Town so he could see Ash again? Is this why he's so helpful to Ash, even more than to his own grandson?
I also appreciate that Team Rocket have a more substantial role here than in most of the movies. In the previous ones, it's felt awkwardly like they were only there because they're major characters in the anime and had to be fitted in somehow, but in this one they make a more interesting active contribution to the story by helping to characterize the Iron-Masked Marauder. The way they grovel before him once they realize who he is, even when he treats them like dirt, says something about his position and influence within Team Rocket, and we're invited to contrast his willingness to throw Giovanni to the wolves once he has Celebi with Jessie, James and Meowth's absolute loyalty to him - plus, of course, his ruthlessness and cruelty against how quick the trio are to stand on the side of goodness and decency when the stakes rise.
In general, this movie has a number of little moments that I quite like in it, like that humanizing picture of the Pokémon hunter with his Houndoom, the Marauder's unusual acts of violence, Ash and company ignoring Team Rocket so they can get Celebi to the village, Sammy's old wind-up Pokéball, and Jessie catching Ash and Sammy when they fall off Suicune. Plus, it has a Scyther, which makes everything better. Actually, a Scyther and a swarm of adorable Butterfree. Somebody making this movie really wanted to please me.
The scene where Celebi is dying and Ash tries to give it berries to eat is pretty well done; his increasing desperation as he fixates on the idea that Celebi must be okay somehow and the understated focus on the berries falling uselessly into the water twangs the right heartstrings - unfortunately, though, the rest of the scene is too drawn-out and overblown, and the resolution cheapens it.
Finally, aesthetically it's often pretty and has nice music.
Primarily, this movie is just rather underwhelming for the most part - even the things I like about it could have been a lot better. The Iron-Masked Marauder may be more threatening than usual, but he's also cheesy and stereotypical and his motive is bland and generic. The revelation that Sammy is Professor Oak is fun, but there's almost nothing in the movie itself that gains more significance or gives insight into Professor Oak's character once we know who Sammy is, nor does it make particular sense in hindsight - it feels sort of tacked on. And while Team Rocket's role here has a bit more substance than usual, it could have been far more: for most of the movie, James and Meowth hang around miserably worrying about Jessie after she's been captured, and while this is cute, it'd be so much more interesting if they actually tried to do something about it. They could be an active part of the plot, even teaming up with the heroes for the sake of recovering Jessie, but instead they're disappointingly relegated to the background as usual.
This movie also has a lot of conspicuous CG, which really hurts the aesthetic aspect. The Conspicuously CG Giant Mecha just looks awkward and unconvincing rather than frightening, and Suicune's appearance on the mountain utterly fails to be majestic and awe-inspiring because literally all I can think when I look at it is how glaringly computer-generated it is. They try really hard to look like traditional animation, but there's no way to mistake them for it in motion, and as a result they simply don't fit in.
The end here involves a deus ex machina, too. Granted, here it's not actually the resolution of the plot, since the main resolution with Celebi shaking off the Dark Ball's influence has already happened by that point, so it's not as bad as the one in the first movie. But going to the trouble of deciding Celebi's life force is tied to the forest and the lake, making it wither and die, and having a long scene of everyone crying and railing against the injustice of the world, only to then bring out a sudden swarm of time-traveling Celebi to magically fix everything, feels a bit cheap and disingenuous.
Suicune here starts an unfortunate trend of the movies having "secondary" legendaries with underwhelming roles and little relevance, seemingly included only to entice fans of that legendary to see the movie. All Suicune really does here is serve as a glorified steed for Ash and Sammy for the space of a literally three-minute scene - even its power to purify water, brought up at the beginning of the movie as if it's going to be important later, anticlimactically turns out irrelevant and useless as it fails to help Celebi. All in all, it feels incredibly extraneous and underused.
Lastly, there are weird little plot holes, such as how the Iron-Masked Marauder could possibly have known Celebi went exactly forty years into the future and where Ash and company got rope to tie Scizor and Sneasel with in the middle of the forest, and some awkward expository dialogue, such as the hunter introducing himself to Sammy at the beginning for no reason.
This movie has some standout bits, but unfortunately it's mostly rather lackluster and in some respects quite bad. It's pretty entertaining to watch overall, but ultimately ends up rather forgettable, especially in the grand scheme of the Pokémon movie series, where this plot is as standard as it gets. It's definitely not without merit, but it doesn't rank very highly for me.
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