'Kyurem VS the Sacred Swordsman: Keldeo' review
This year marks the fifteenth Pocket Monsters film. Being around for a decade and a half is certainly an achievement that few other series can boast, but is that something that actually works in its favor? Is this franchise still able to produce entertaining films that aren't rehashes of a previous movie? Or is this movie series just going through the motions at this point?
Kyurem VS the Sacred Swordsman: Keldeo is, as you can imagine, about the battle between Kyurem and Keldeo. Keldeo is currently training with the three Sacred Swordsmen – Terrakion, Virizion, and Cobalion – to become a Sacred Swordsman itself. In order to do this, Keldeo has to be able to summon a sword-like beam of light from its forehead known as the “sacred sword” and then defeat the legendary Pokémon Kyurem in battle. Keldeo is too impatient to finish its training and runs off to some abandoned mines to fight Kyurem, but it ends up being no match for the legendary Dragon-type. Keldeo runs away after Kyurem encases the other three Swordsmen in ice, leaving their battle undecided.
Keldeo eventually bumps into Ash and his friends and convinces them to help it free the other Swordsmen. As they try to return to the mines, Kyurem, who's still pretty angry that its battle with Keldeo was left undecided, starts attacking our heroes. Iris and Cilan distract their pursuers while Ash and Keldeo escape the city and return to Kyurem's lair. At the end of the movie, the battle between Kyurem and Keldeo is finally settled.
This film is refreshing because it actually focuses on the Pokémon for a change. If you're the kind of fan who hated the fact that the Victini movie spent so much time on Damon and the whole “People of the Vale” thing, or the fact that the final DP movie was basically “Kodai The Movie,” then you'll really like this one. This one's all about Keldeo and its journey from the scared and overconfident kid to a more mature, grounded-in-reality warrior. The Sacred Swordsmen also get a decent amount of screentime and characterization, which is quite remarkable considering they spend ¾ of the movie frozen in ice.
But that's not to say that the humans just sit around while the Pokémon have all the fun. Ash does the usual hero stuff like bonding with Keldeo and working to free the three Swordsmen that you'd expect him to do, but this time he's not alone. Both Iris and Cilan actually get to do something in this movie, and in fact I think this is probably the most we've seen the sidekick characters do since 2000's Entei movie. The fact that Iris can somehow pilot a blimp that's been rotting underground for what we assume is years is, of course, insane, but you just sort of go with it because you're happy to see a sidekick character actually do something in one of these things. Cilan also gets to use his knowledge as a Metro Connoisseur to both lead everyone out of the city via the abandoned subway lines and drive the rail car and lure the Cryogonal away from Keldeo. Everyone gets a role to play in this movie, and no one is wasted.
The various Forme changes in this film aren't quite as great. Kyurem goes back and forth between Black Kyurem and White Kyurem quite a bit, but we never really get a sense of why it's transforming so much. Kyurem's already overpowered in this film enough as it is, so why does it need these additional power-ups? And Keldeo's Resolution Forme somehow manages to feel even more shoehorned in. We don't get to see Chekhov's gun until the minutes leading up to Keldeo changing, making its transformation seem like a last-minute addition instead of something that was planned from the start. I know the producers of this movie wanted to promote the new Black 2 / White 2 games, but I really feel like they could have done a better job of incorporating those elements into the story.
For the most part, the movie looks amazing, animation-wise. The four deer Pokémon all look great – though Cobalion runs a bit funny – and the backgrounds in this movie are some of the best this franchise has ever given us. The city of Roshan, particularly, has this great modern feel to it, and I particularly liked the design of its Pokémon Center. The mines also have an atmosphere about them unlike any other. I think one of my favorite shots, animation-wise, is when Keldeo is slowly approaching the arch of ice that Kyurem creates to signify the start of their battle. The sense of scale achieved by placing the camera right at Keldeo's eye level really helps show off how small Keldeo is, adding a great amount of weight to this David and Goliath story.
On the other hand, Iris is off-model for the overwhelming majority of the film. Her eyes will be too big, or her bangs will take up too much space on her forehead, or her face will be shaped funny, or something. It's all incredibly distracting. What's weird is that the animators have no problem with either Ash or Cilan - Iris is the only one the animators never really learned to draw. Pikachu is also off-model a lot – the movie's opening credits are a great example of this – but it's not quite as bad as Iris.
There's also a problem with some awkwardly used CG, with the frozen Terrakion, Virizion, and Cobalion immediately coming to mind. Like, one minute they're hand drawn and then, as soon as they get frozen, BAM! - CG Swordsmen for pretty much the rest of the movie. Kyurem also goes back and forth between being hand drawn and being a 3D model, and it just looks so much better when it's the former.
The voice acting here is top-notch. Series regulars Rica Matsumoto, Aoi Yūki, and Mamoru Miyano are up to their usual high standards, though none of them receive any huge “dramatic” scene to really push them acting-wise. As for the new guys; they're mostly good. I joined in with the fans who were dismayed to learn that Shōko Nakagawa had been cast as Keldeo based on how terrible she's been in everything else she's ever done, but she does a surprisingly good job here. She nails the headstrong boy-ish voice without being annoying, and I actually have something resembling respect for her after watching this movie. Hiroki Yasumoto does a great job of bringing out Terrakion's laid-back, headstrong nature, and Takako Honda brings a calm, motherly quality to Virizion. And Kōichi Yamadera, who's stated many times that he worries about his voices sounding too similar to each other, does a fantastic job of making his Cobalion sound both unique and authoritative.
The one bad spot in the cast is Rola, who just phones in her “performance” as Malin. I can't even call what she's doing “acting” - she's just cold reading from a script, and I can't imagine why any voice director would call it a day after getting that kind of performance out of her. Luckily, Malin's only on-screen for like three minutes, so her terrible, terrible acting can't hurt the film too much.
Music-wise, nothing really stood out to me. My opinion might change when I pick up the soundtrack CD that comes out on August 3rd and become more familiar with it, but right now I can't actually recall most of the music from the film. I remember that they use one piece of TV series music when everyone's eating lunch, but other than that? Rola's performance in the movie's ending theme “Memories” is surprisingly good, especially after hearing her Malin voice, and I definitely recommend picking up the CD single if you have the opportunity.
I also wanted to bring up the sound direction for a minute. This is the fifth Pocket Monsters movie I've personally seen in Japanese theaters, and this movie definitely made better use of the theater's surround sound system than any of the others. The explosions were actually loud enough to make my chair vibrate, and Kyurem's growls and grunts really sounded like they were coming from inside the building, adding to the monster's ferocity. I definitely recommend hooking up the home theater for this one when the DVD / Blu-ray comes out later this year.
Overall, I think this movie was a refreshing change of pace from the big “rescue the world” scenarios we've been given the last few years. The smaller scale of the story here works well, and it's nice seeing a movie that manages to strike that perfect balance between focusing on the Pokémon and giving all the human characters something to do. It's the best Pocket Monsters movie we've had in years, and I really cannot recommend it enough.