5. Arceus and the Jewel of Life (2009)
In Arceus and the Jewel of Life, Pokémon foregoes flirtations with time travel in 2001’s Pokémon 4Ever and dives in head first.
In the present, the legendary Pokémon Arceus returns to punish humanity for a betrayal in the past. With the help of Dialga, the heroes are sent back in time to prevent this from happening.
As a time travel film, there are likely a lot of holes to poke; but who is thinking that hard about a Pokémon film? Besides, the time travel logic can be set aside when the story is one of the most consistently engaging in the series.
Getting a look at an ancient world, where Pokémon are referred to as magical creatures, is interesting and adds a lot of lore of the franchise. The idea of setting an entire film in this period will undoubtedly be an attractive one for many after watching Jewel of Life.
Occasionally the script is exposition-heavy, although that is to be expected when you’re writing a time travel film aimed at children. Arceus’ voice leaves a lot to be desired too – in the games, Arceus is the literal God of all Pokémon, so his voice is naturally expected to be deeper and more in line with other depictions of God in media, but is instead presented as if a villain from the old Spider-Man cartoons (all he is missing is a moustache to twirl). The poor casting simply doesn’t match the spiritual design.
Not absent of holes by any means, but a lot of fun for those invested in Pokémon or enjoyable time travel anime, Jewel of Life is a genuinely great conclusion to the Sinnoh trilogy, with satisfying ties to the previous entries and standalone levels of closure for fans unwilling to watch all 22 Pokémon movies.
4. Heroes (2002)
The final film featuring the original cast sees Ash and friends arrive in the luscious Alto Mare, heavily inspired by Venice. The city is gorgeous and well used from the get-go, as the opening credits take us through the city at a breakneck pace. This is the best opening song in any Pokémon movie, in terms of being catchy and setting up the tone of the film. “Believe In Me” is full of urgency and nostalgic riffs, enough to amp up even the most laidback of viewers.
Heroes should be the template on how to use legendary Pokémon. Both Latios and Latias feel like their own distinct characters and are as integral as the humans. The fact that they don’t speak is greatly appreciated as that trope is attributed to too many legendary Pokémon throughout the rest of the franchise and it therefore makes them feel more like mythical creatures. The viewers learn about the characters through their actions, allowing their personalities to shine through in a natural way.
The story is a typical save the world adventure, but it is elevated by fun characters and a mature ending that feels impactful. While many of the films in the franchise feel like filler or pointless tie-ins, Heroes is a worthy addition to the overall canon.
3. Pokémon 3 The Movie: Spell of the Unown (2000)
After battling clones in the first movie and saving the world in the second, it was unclear what the Pokémon franchise would tackle next. In Spell of the Unown, Pokémon decided to turn it down a notch, presenting a smaller scale story revolving around the series’ most unique villain: a 5-year-old girl. While that may sound laughable, Molly’s destruction is a lowkey exploration of grief, a much-needed reminder that Pokémon films can have depth too.
In the film’s opening, Molly’s father is sucked into another dimension, with implications that he is dead. The rest of the film sees her cope with this, which becomes problematic when she stumbles upon the Unown, a Pokémon species with an ability to alter reality and thus grant her the power to conjure up anything she can imagine.
The film’s centrepiece is Entei, a powerful legendary Pokemon that Molly creates to fill the void of her father. For most of the film Entei believes he is the girl’s dad, so watching him grow and break away from this can lead to some emotionally fulfilling moments. Molly fills the maternal gap in her life by abducting Ash’s mum – the inclusion of Delia Ketchum makes for a great change of pace from the first two films. The stakes are much closer to home and Ash is therefore directly involved with the plot, a quality most of the other Pokémon films lack.
Visually, the film is decorated with the bright colours of a dream world and the interesting designs of crystals that cover the entire town. Spell of the Unown just gets everything right and was an early sign that Pokémon films could rise above their reputation – even Brock and Misty are given things to do, no longer suffocating in Ash’s shadow.
There’s a scene in this movie in which anime series icon Charizard returns, and it’s one of the coolest moments of fan service ever.
2. Lucario and the Mystery of Mew (2005)
Following two mixed entries (and knowing that the franchise has offered worse), its unlikely that anyone had high hopes for Lucario and the Mystery of Mew. Yet this 2005 release defied expectations and soared to new heights, becoming the best Pokémon film in years. It’s a Pokémon franchise entry coated in a newfound sense of coolness and richness, making it no surprise that it is the highest rated of all Pokémon movies on IMDB.
The opening is one of the series’ strongest: a flashback to ancient times introduces viewers to the titular Lucario and many forgotten concepts. The film shows armored Pokémon at war, hinting at a huge event in the past that is yet to be revisited. If Arceus and the Jewel of Life made a Pokémon film set in the past sound appealing, then this perfected it.
Lucario is the best titular ‘mon since Mewtwo, being a compelling character on par with Ash. He is a tragic character from a different time, seemingly betrayed by his best friend. This makes him all the more alluring as the film shows him dealing with this. The new humans are well-formed too.
Ultimately, Lucario and the Mystery of Mew is a story about friendship. Ash and Lucario share parallels in this respect: Ash is separated from Pikachu for most of the film while Lucario has lost his best friend to the passage of time. This leads to their own friendship developing, each one filling the void for the other. Lucario sees Aaron in Ash, resulting in a climax that is as endearing as it is heartbreaking. It’s no surprise that fans have wanted Ash to catch a Lucario of his own ever since.
This is one of the longer films in the franchise, but it spends this time well, telling a developed story that is allowed time to breathe. It feels organic and avoids the repetitive nature of Destiny Deoxys, the film that preceded it. Lucario and the Mystery of Mew ticks all the boxes of a fun and emotional adventure, but there is still one that manages to surpass it…
1. The Rise of Darkrai (2007)
10 films in and Pokémon finally perfected the formula.
While The Rise of Darkrai introduces nothing viewers haven’t seen before, it executes them in a profoundly new way, as if this is the definitive statement.
Ash, Brock and Dawn arrive at the secluded Alamos Town, famed for its huge bell towers. The town is experiencing disturbances to the air, which unbeknownst to them are being caused by a battle between the legendary Pokémon Palkia and Dialga, controllers of space and time. The townsfolk mistakenly blame Darkrai, the mythical Pokémon capable of causing nightmares. It is revealed through flashbacks that Darkrai is innocent, painting him as a tragic character similar to Lucario. Darkrai joins Mewtwo and Lucario as being one of the best title Pokémon. While the misunderstood hero has been done countless times before, here it is handled with a sophistication unlike anything in the Pokémon canon.
Darkrai is a testament to the idea of making the Pokémon as important as the humans. A recurring theme in Pokémon is that people and Pokémon are equal, yet while many of the films try and sell this idea, it is rare that the writers create stories that truly reflect this sentiment – too many times legendary Pokémon are used as spectacle or a plot device. While having them battle is fun, the lack of motives and stakes removes the need to care. Darkrai is a prime example of why good writing matters – the moments where he protects Alamos Town from Dialga and Palkia’s destruction would not be anywhere near as impactful if the audience didn’t have a strong connection with him.
The three new human characters are likeable, being great adversaries for Ash and company. The kind-hearted Alice is the soul of the film through her connections to Darkrai’s past; the booksmart Tonio is our gateway to understanding the more advanced concepts of space and time, and his relationship with Alice is sweet, giving the film a sense of innocence.
While the drama is the film’s crowning achievement, it is also rife with comedic moments. This is most notable with the arrogant Baron Alberto, whose self assured nature leads to many funny scenes.
The film’s grace continues with its soundtrack, which is noticeably better than every other Pokémon film. Darkrai’s theme is both heroic and intimidating, and this veil of mystery aptly fits the character, whose intentions are initially unclear. The beautifully composed Oracion is used throughout the film to great effect, with the song convincingly living up to its in-universe reputation of possessing the power to soothe anger.
It’s rare for Pokémon to fire on all cylinders like this: complex characters, a delightful score and thrilling action scenes result in a film that is unmissable for fans of the franchise. As stated in the introduction of this list, Pokémon films are not the pinnacle of cinema, but The Rise of Darkrai comes pretty close.
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Updated to include The Arceus Chronicles 15th Nov 2022. Originally published 26th Aug 2021.
What is your favourite Pokémon movie? Do you agree with our order or would you have chosen something different as your number one? Let us know in the comments and be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date with the latest movie news, reviews, interviews and lists.