As much as the Lucario movie makes me want to set things on fire, there’s no denying that it was incredibly popular. This was mostly due to its star, whose design and abilities quickly established the species as a mainstay in middle schoolers’ Pokemon teams and poorly drawn fetish pornography.
So in true franchise fashion, one of the primary focuses of the fifth generation was to replicate that success. This led to the creation of Zoroark, the “diplomat” of Pokemon Black & White. In addition to following the same patterns as Lucario (bipedal, anthropomorphic design, two-stage evolution), it came with its own power- the power of illusion.
Nevermind the fact that we’ve had a shapeshifting Pokemon since the series’ inception, now we finally have one that looks cool.
This also marks a turning point for the franchise’s fanbase. The film came out only a few months before the games did, and a number of fans that had bailed over the past few years came flocking back, whether they were drawn by nostalgia from the recent Gen II remakes or a nagging insistence that there hadn’t been any “good Pokemon” since 1998.
It’s the home stretch from here on out, folks. This is probably the first movie to take place in the “modern era” of the franchise, and I hope for its sake it’s a good introduction.
We begin with a first for these films- our actual protagonists. They’re on their way to check out the Baccer World Cup. This phenomenon, which we’ve never heard of before or since, consists of teams of Pokemon using a top to play a variant of soccer. It’s not the best made-up sport, but I bet the fantasy league is off the hook.
This is apparently a huge event, as numerous parties are headed off to the showings in Crown City (based off of Amsterdam, but without all the liberal arts student stereotypes). The town is decked out like any good host city that gets its economy decimated by sporting event, most noticeably through the placement of countdown clocks across town.
The sport is dominated by Grings Kodai (Sean Schemmel), who apparently owns the three Legendary Beasts of Johto (Entei, Suicune, and Raikou) and uses them for athletics and nobody questions this for some reason. Clearly he couldn’t be up to anything sinister.
Cut to Kodai doing something sinister. As it turns out he’s a businessman that primarily appears to conduct business from his personal airship (never a good sign). He’s aided through this by his employees Goone (Marc Thompson), which is a dumb name, and Rowena (Bella Hudson), which is a dumb name unless your surname happens to be Ravenclaw.
The airship is currently housing the mysterious Zoroark (Romi Park) and her son Zorua (Eileen Stevens). They’re being kept in order to test their illusion-creating ability, coupled with the (actually holographic) Beasts. Although the resulting visuals manage to fool all involved, the team has illusion-cancelling bracelets that somehow break through them. Zorua is seized by the group for purposes of collateral yet manages to escape, but he still receives a failing grade as he manages to fall out of the airship, only avoiding certain death through transforming.
This prologue makes one thing clear: the animation can finally be considered good.
The traditional animation is smooth as it can get, and while the computer-generated graphics aren’t great, they’re at least passable. This is what happens when you actually give them a budget, folks.
Also these first ten minutes originally weren’t part of the dubbed showing. The film premiered in the United States on Cartoon Network, who went over the heads of the Pokemon Company and outright cut the prologue, presumably to make more air time for whatever was the equivalent of Teen Titans Go at the time. This was rectified in future airings, but this omission leaves a ton of plot holes that you have to piece together by yourself through context halfway through the movie.
Anyway, the leads come across Zorua when he runs into trouble with the local Pokemon in the nearby woods. They aren’t even particularly shocked to find out that this particular species can talk, but the evolutionary line is based on illusion and you see a talking Zoroark in the games so I’ll give it a pass.
I actually like Zorua. That’s not to say that he’s an entirely likeable character (he’s not), but he’s definitely an enjoyable one. He’s a jerk, but that seems to come more out of a sense of mischief than entitlement. Not to mention that he actually faces consequences for his less-than-savory actions unlike a few other characters I can think of, Shaymin.
But the strongest argument in favor of Zorua is that he’s got the highest stakes. While Ash, Dawn, and Brock are present, they’re secondary characters if anything. It’s Zorua and Zoroark’s story, which is both a refreshing change and an interesting strength of this movie.
Zorua’s primary motivation is to find his “Meema”, which is one of those terms that teeters on the brink between endearing and annoying. He also spends a fair amount of time transforming into his companions and generally acting like someone you do not want to be seen in public with. But hey, those kinds of powers are awesome, can you blame him?
Meanwhile, Zoroark is unleashed upon the city. Using a hologram of Zorua as a hostage, Kodai is able to manipulate her into posing as the Legendary Beasts and wreaking havoc upon the town. This really just amounts to sending out imaginary fire and floods, but it seems to work since you don’t really want to touch those things to see if they’re real.
It’s a decent segment, but it’s missing something. Maybe it’s because it’s already been established that it’s a ruse. Maybe it’s because we already know how Zoroark’s being blackmailed. Maybe she’d just be more threatening if it wasn’t for the numerous closeups bringing attention to her ridiculous facial design.
We spend most of the chaos with Peg (Alyson Leigh Rosenfeld), who is an utter mystery. She’s got a design that screams “main character” and is the primary focus of the “wrecking town” sequence, and yet after this we don’t see her again until the end credits.
Team Rocket also shows up amidst the trouble, because they’re characters. They talk in rhyme now for some reason.
The uproar in the city appears to set off some sort of alarm, as the actual Entei, Suicune, and Raikou begin to head to the source of the trouble. They’re shiny so we can tell them apart, although the odds of this actually occurring amongst all three is about one in 550 billion.
During all of this, we witness the arrival of our third central party…
Oh no. Oh no. Ohhh no no no no no.
Yeah, Celebi’s back (played by Rie Kugimiya), turning this whole movie into a goddamn Gen II reunion. This time it appears to be a guardian spirit of sorts to the city due to its ability to create life (plant life, but it still counts). Some of the locals see it flying around and subsequently freak out, as it was able to use its abilities to save the town from ruin twenty years in the past.
All of this crap going down leads to the evacuation of the city while Kodai claims responsibility and swears to control the creature, leaving our heroes locked out and the streets perfectly abandoned for chase sequences. Before Zorua can attempt to swim across the surrounding river and inevitably drown, someone actually notices the talking Pokemon that keeps on transforming. This is Karl (Wayne Grayson), a reporter from the area who knows how to get into the town through the sewer system. They don’t even have to rob any bodies down there.
In the city, Kodai is gloating over the panic that he has caused when he has a vision of the future showing the protagonists confronting him over his actions as he gloats over some imminent victory by one of the town’s countdown clocks and sets out to ensure he can get whatever power he’s striving for.
Oh yeah, Kodai can literally see into the future.
It’ll make sense later, I swear.
Zoroark also attempts to escape from the kidnappers but is recaptured through the use of another hologram. She’s then sent to one of those rooms from Cube, but with electricity and pain instead of convoluted puzzles.
Arriving in the city, Zorua immediately runs off to try and track down his mother and immediately gets dispatched by some local Pokemon because he’s comparatively useless. Thanks to the arrival of Celebi, Karl’s grandparents have elected to stay in the town and it’s discovered that all of the carnage caused by Zoroark was faked, and presumably directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Zorua doesn’t have the time to advance the plot, though, and runs off (followed by Piplup and Pikachu) to go harass some Pokemon at the park. Before they can be ripped apart by the locals, Celebi is able to calm down all involved, which I guess makes it kind of a gang leader. They accept the Legendary’s friendship as thanks for not dying and set off.
On the less marketable side of things, the human characters encounter Kodai as he systematically checks every clock in town, and get captured and imprisoned for their troubles. Fortunately, Rowena is actually an associate of Karl, going undercover Nellie Bly style to try and expose Kodai’s villainy by going through his files. Upon seeing the imprisoned group, she immediately double-crosses the businessman and frees them, complete with exposition at no charge.
It turns out that twenty years beforehand, Kodai gained his powers by touching the “time ripple” that Celebi uses to time travel, which is disgusting. You don’t know where that’s been. While this abstract concept gave him incredible powers, it also came at the cost of the town’s greenery (fortunately this seems to be limited to non-sentient plant life, because a grass type genocide would not be pretty). It’s been a few movies since they had an environmental message going on, so I suppose they felt like they were overdue.
The Pokemon, meanwhile, aren’t having much luck with their search, and Zorua is beginning to lose hope before Celebi cheers him up through the power of plants or whatever. After tracking down this group, Kodai attempts to get more information by outright choking Celebi in one of the most downright uncomfortable animated sequences I’ve ever seen. The physical trauma forces the legendary to activate the time ripple early because violence always gets you what you want.
This is mercifully cut short (and just in time, too, given that it looks like he’s getting sexual pleasure from the act) by the arrival of the heroes, who scare him off before regrouping and figuring out what to do.
By this point, the Legendary Beasts have come to town, much too late to actually do anything about the events that have summoned them. They do, however, get to fight Zoroark, who manages to hold her own pretty well despite having a terrible special defense stat. This doesn’t really do anything to advance the plot, but it looks cool and manages to get them where they need to go.
Where they need to go turns out to be the stadium where the tournament is being held. The local Pokemon manage to break up the fight, and the leads fool Kodai by having Zorua disguise himself as Celebi and attack him once he’s led astray. Zorua’s useless, though, so “attacking” in this case means “biting him, then getting slapped around”. Kodai is able to use this to his advantage by using the Pokemon as leverage to keep Zoroark from attacking him and this guy clearly takes far too much pleasure in physically assaulting Pokemon that are obviously meant to be children. We’ve come a long way from 4Kids, folks.
With all threats to his ploy for power neutralized, there’s nothing stopping Kodai. He’s able to reach the time ripple and absorb its power without any further issues. As the plant life around him begins to wither, he announces his plans to kill all of the witnesses, pin the blame on Zoroark, and get off scot-free.
But just when things are looking their bleakest, it’s revealed that Zorua broke the illusion canceller when he attacked Kodai and the last two minutes were an illusion caused by Zoroark, which is actually fairly clever. I don’t even have anything snide to say, they took what they were given and they made a pretty good twist out of it. Good job, movie. You get a gold star.
This temporary setback allowed for Karl and Rowena to capture his evil gloating on video, and after recovering from this turn of events, the villain sends his Pokemon to attack Zorua despite the fact that he only has ghost types and thus any attacks will have no effect.
Nobody told Zoroark about this type immunity though, as she dives to protect her child and takes the hit for him. The Legendary Beasts prevent any more access to the time ripple, and in his attempt to escape Kodai is sucked into another illusion and knocked out cold. Satisfied, Zoroark is able to die in piece.
Yeah, yeah, we all know what’s coming. The characters mourn, something symbolic happens (in this case Zorua pulling off a large illusion of a meadow), followed by a deus ex machina. This time, Celebi is able to use the time ripple to heal both itself and Zoroark through the power of time or something. It’s not very clear.
Zoroark is brought back to life, Kodai is arrested, and all the legendaries go their separate ways, with the illusion Pokemon apparently heading back to Unova by cruise ship. Ash promises to visit their region next, where I’m sure they will be welcomed with open arms by the fanbase and not reduced to a random encounter in the following batch of games. A ton of unnecessary cameos show over the credits, and just like that we’re done with Gen IV.
The biggest downside to such a long franchise is that it inevitably gets same-y after awhile. Plots grow predictable, the same concepts are used over and over, and things ultimately begin to blur together. But with this in mind, Zoroark: Master of Illusion manages to do the impossible. It’s actually an enjoyable movie.
I mean it. I actually liked this one. The writing’s great, the visuals are spot-on, I didn’t particularly hate any of the characters, and ultimately it’s probably the best entry in the franchise since Heroes.
It’s funny how after a trio of movies meant to be this great epic plotline the best film of the fourth generation is one that has no qualms about what it’s supposed to be. It’s a Pokemon movie. It doesn’t need to be grand or showstopping. It just needs to be fun. And in that regard, it passes with flying colors.