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The Movie "Koko"
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Dogasu's Backpack | Movies & Specials Guide | Koko
This review contains spoilers for Movie 23.
After the year we've all just had, sitting down to finally watch Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" is a surreal experience. Originally slated for a July 10th release, the film was pushed back six months thanks to COVID-19, making the 532 day gap between the previous film and this new one the longest in the franchise's history. Finally getting a chance to sit down and watch the 23rd Pokémon movie is like sitting down to play Kingdom Hearts 3, or watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You've been waiting so long you can't believe the day has finally come.
But it has, and you know what? Maybe all that build up was too much for a film that, at the end of the day, is really just OK.
Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" is about a human boy named Koko who was found alone in a forest when he was just a baby. Zarude, one of the Mythical Pokémon who lives in the forest, decides to take the young boy under his wing and raise it as its own child. Ten years pass until one day a series of events lead to Koko encountering his very first human friend -- a boy from Masara Town named Satoshi. Koko learns about this new type of creature called "humans" and wonders if, maybe, he himself isn't a Pokémon at all...? And if he's not a Pokémon, does that mean that Zarude isn't his real father?
One of the first things people say when they talk about this movie is to dismiss it as a rip-off of "The Kangaskhan Kid" and / or Disney's Tarzan. And, well, put the two side by side it's hard to argue that the influence isn't there.
But to dismiss Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" as a mere Tarzan clone is probably about the laziest and most hack criticism you could possibly make for this film. Did the people who made Koko lift a few things from Disney's 1999 Tarzan film? Absolutely. Does that matter in any way whatsoever? Of course not. That's because, despite a few surface-level similarities, Koko stands as its own film. An inferior film in many ways, sure, but a film with its own unique identity nonetheless.
Director Tetsuo Yajima got the drive to tell this story from him becoming a father himself and wanting to work through his feelings about what it means to be a parent. The filmmakers also figured that hey, a lot of the people who grew up watching Pocket Monsters when they were little are all grown up with children of their own, making now as good a time as any to tell a story like this. All the pre-release promotional material -- the interviews, the podcast appearances, the social media comments -- made it seem like this was going to be a story delving into the concept of "found family," and how you can be closer to people you're not actually related to by blood than you are with the people who share your DNA.
If that was the story they were going for then they unfortunately fumbled the ball here. Don't get me wrong, the connection between Koko and Zarude is sweet and heartwarming......on paper. But there's just something about the two's interactions that make it feel more like someone checking off a bunch of items on a list than them crafting a real connection between two characters who find themselves in one extraordinary situation after the other. Scene of them bonding over food? Check. Scene of one crying for the other? Check. Scene of one almost dying for the other? Check. The whole thing has this manufactured, clinical feel to it, as if the filmmakers have figured out the secret formula to making Japanese audiences cry and so they're just plugging in variables into an equation. The relationship between Satoshi and Koko feels much more organic, at least, but that's really just a detour. The main event, the supposed backbone of this film, just feels like robots carrying out a program.
It doesn't help that there aren't really too many likable characters in the movie this time around. The film opens, for example, on the Zarude troop bullying a bunch of smaller, weaker Pokémon, intimidating them in order to get berries all to themselves. Not really a great first impression for the group the movie's gonna want us to cheer on in the third act, now is it! The film's titular character is alright, I guess, but he doesn't really ever talk to anyone other than his "Dada" or Satoshi, and the latter can't even understand what he's saying and so even that has its limits. And Dr. Zed is the murderous (!) bad guy, so that leaves us with...Karen? Koko's parents? That mayor dude who walks around in Baiwooluu cosplay, for some reason? Compared to Mr. Yajima's previous film, Pocket Monsters The Movie "Everyone's Story," this film has a surprising lack of likable, fleshed out characters.
One thing this movie actually did carry over from Everyone's Story, happily, is the sense that Mr. Yajima's movie takes place in a living, breathing world. There are background characters all over the place, and everyone's moving about and going about their lives regardless of what's going on in the foreground. None of that "characters just standing around still as statues, never reacting to anything" going on here, nosiree! The Okoya Forest and Milyfa Town are living, breathing places, and the movie uses its strong visual style to make sure there's always something for us to look at.
The voice cast for this film is, for the most part, top notch. Kankuro Nakamura's "Dada" is pretty much perfect, and watching Kouichi Yamadera's turn from the cool and collected researcher to the murderous, enraged villain in the final act is an absolute delight. Shoko Nakagawa is usually this unstoppable ball of energy so seeing her play Karen in a subdued, natural way reminds us of just how great an actor she is. The regulars - Rica Matsumoto, Ikue Otani, the Rocket quartet -- are all up to their usual high quality. The only voice I couldn't really get into, unfortunately, was Koko's. Moka Kamishiraishi is a fine actress and all, but there were several points in the film where I was very aware that this ten-year-old boy was being voiced by an adult woman.
Music-wise, the film does a lot of interesting things. The movie has the usual opening and ending theme and then a whopping four insert songs (five if you include the second, alternate version of Okite no Uta that's not on that Theme Song Collection, for some reason), the most of any Pocket Monsters film to date. You could see this as being yet another thing the filmmakers are ripping off from Disney's Tarzan, but unlike the Phil Collins songs in that film the music in Koko has a lot more variety. Show Window is a standout, and Hum of the Forest is a hauntingly beautiful song that's used in the most absolutely perfect moment. Shinji Miyazaki and the rest of the crew from Everyone's Story returns to provide the non-vocal background music, and I can't tell you how happy it makes me to hear his music in Pokémon again. I've grown to like Yuki Hayashi's work in the Pocket Monsters (2019) TV series and I think he's a super talented musician and all, but at the end of the day the show doesn't sound like Pocket Monsters if Mr. Miyazaki isn't working on it. The movie also makes great use of silence -- scenes without any background music whatsoever -- to give certain scenes the weight they wouldn't otherwise have if, say, someone was playing a sad melody in the background.
Pocket Monsters The Movie "Koko" is by no means a bad film. It's actually pretty decent. I just think that if you go into this expecting a movie as great as director Yajima's other Pokémon movie then you're going to walk away disappointed. Temper your expectations and I think you'll have a decent time.
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