By Alex Skrapits
Do you ever remember that childhood feeling where you are were a fan of a franchise growing up and came across another franchise that sounds similar to that said franchise? The most common debate during the late 90s and early 2000s involved two Japanese franchises Pokémon and Digimon. When Pokémon was created in 1995 and was released overseas in 1997, it became a worldwide phenomenon with its collection of video games, training cards and a long-running anime series starting on Kids WB. Suddenly, you tuned into FOX Kids and noticed another anime with a similar title known as Digimon, along with having its own video games and training cards. At first glance, some kids would believe the latter to be a knock-off from another. In actuality, their names are both short abbreviations of similar, uniquely different concepts. Pokémon is called Pocket Monsters in Japan where it emphasized on collecting and training creatures for battle while Digimon, short for “Digital Monsters”, is focused more on virtual pet simulation, akin to Tamagotchi, while also being trained for battling other pets. Nonetheless, both franchises still continue to grow strong to this day.
To be honest, I had a more nostalgic connection towards Digimon than with Pokémon growing up. I’m NOT saying that I dislike Pokémon, I eventually became accustomed by the time the third generation came in. I remembered watching select episodes of the first two seasons on VHS and caught up watching the rest on cable. I also had a bunch of toys and action figures either made in or outside the U.S.A. Not to mention owning some of Digimon video games whether it was an RPG, fighting game…or a racing game. I still appreciate how much the series has evolved and how Japan treats the franchise with respect. …If only FOX wished they would’ve done the same back then.
When Pokémon: The First Movie was released and a commercial hit in theaters, FOX decided to throw their hat in the ring by releasing a Digimon movie in theaters based on the first two seasons. However, instead of adapting a single full-length movie, they decided to take three, separate films and heavily edited them together as an anthology film, along with dialogue changes and adding dated pop songs for the film’s soundtrack. In addition, there were disputes between the show’s writers and producers, lack of funding and the show’s actors were contracted to be paid residuals over home media releases. And of course, like Pokémon, critics panned the movie despite being serviceable to children or fans that grew up watching the series. Fan service or not, there was a hidden extra layer in the Americanized version that would disappoint audiences outside the U.S.
Before I continue, I’d like to mention that I personally enjoyed the movie as a kid. I saw it in theaters and watched the VHS several times wherever or whenever. Yes, I deeply understand opinions change over the years as we grow older. With a straight face, I do prefer watching the original versions over this movie, but I cannot deny the goofy, sugarcoated nature or the action packed moments that I still fondly remember to this day. In other words, this will be coming from a fan’s perspective and a general perspective.
The first act involves two kids and a giant battle between two Digimon in the city. The second act is about saving the Internet from a computer virus Digimon. The final act concludes a group of kids helping another kid stop a corrupted Digimon in Colorado.
After what I just wrote, you will portably start asking: “What do these three different stories have in common?” or “What’s the focus?” The answer: nothing. It is very clear that the first major problem with this movie (especially for newcomers) is that the writing has no consistency, which makes this “coherent narrative” a confusing and jumbled mess. You’ll be asking more questions than getting answers by the time this movie is over. The “main connection” that these three stories claim to share involves a character named Willis. Unfortunately, the aforementioned character himself doesn’t appear until the third act, which I’ll discuss later with the characters.
To be fair for a moment, the pacing for the first two thirds of the movie do feel alright. With the first being based on the original 20 minute theatrical short, it does well enough on its own. Honestly, the second story, which takes up majority of the running time, should’ve been a standalone dub of its original version instead. The last story is evidential enough to present the movie’s second issue: the editing. Since the studio couldn’t afford to produce a two-hour movie, the pacing and editing feels so rushed that it doesn’t give its audience enough time to become invested or being emotionally involved. For those that STILL have no idea what’s going on, one of the major characters Kari provides narration and info throughout the movie. While it sounds helpful for newcomers in theory, it heavily exploits on exposition so much that it becomes distracting and annoying after a while. There are even moments where the movie would repeat footage and remind us what happened earlier. The best scene to sum up that problem is where Willis tells Davis his backstory. “Yes, we know Willis has two Digimon!” Yes, we know he is from Colorado!” “You don’t have to refresh our memories; Kari already told us!” See where I am getting?
In a similar vein to the Pokémon anime and its theatrical movies at the time, the English dubbing provided a lot of change to the dialogue, sound and music in order to differentiate itself from the original Japanese versions. The results gave the movie a more, lighthearted tone aimed for children in comparison to older audiences. Speaking from someone who did grew up watching up the show, it kind of stayed true to the dubbed first two seasons. For everyone else though, those changes could lead to a variety of reactions. With the tone being more kid-friendly, most of the dialogue is comedic with obvious puns and awkward bathroom jokes that children under the age of…I don’t know…eight would find funny. Poor humor aside, the movie does have its moments where I admittedly either crack a smile or chuckle upon its cornball nature.
The soundtrack is also a mixed bag. The first half of the soundtrack is music and songs directly taken from the show, including the “Digi-Rap”, an extended version of the American theme song. Yes, the song is a cheesy and synthesized rap number with over-emphasizing the phrase “Digi” over the lyrics that pales in comparison to the original Japanese theme song “Butterfly”. But, my inner child cannot resist the catchiness and energetic nature of the song that hooked me onto the show to begin with. Other songs like “Kick It Up” or “Run Around”, on their own, are definitely energetic and fit well with the action sequences throughout the film. On the other hand, the soundtrack also included dated U.S. pop songs, which felt more like an afterthought and soulless since they don’t match the tone of specific songs. The prime example that comes to my mind is the last scene in the movie where a monster-like Digimon is awkwardly dancing under obviously poor edited scenes (i.e. the lighting and color) and the Smash Mouth song “All Star” plays during that scene. Don’t get me wrong; I loved listening to “All-Star” growing up but the imagery I just described does not match the song at all. Coincidentally enough, when Shrek was released MONTHS later after this movie was out, the aforesaid song fitted much better here! If you want to see an animated monster and “All Star” together in the same scene, go watch Shrek…if you haven’t already.
Believe it or not, the TRUE connection that these segments share and easily the best part in the whole movie is the animation. They were all directed by the same animator Mamoru Hosoda, who later went on to make original film projects, such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time and Wolf Children. In addition, the second segment in the movie actually became a major inspiration for his 2008 film, Summer Wars. But, that’s another story for another time.
Anyway, Hosoda’s art direction is very similar to how Hayao Miyazaki incorporated his signature animation style into The Castle of Cagliostro, a movie based on the Lupin the 3rd franchise. The most noteworthy factor is the character designs on both human and Digimon characters. While the likenesses of their designs remain faithful to the television series, they all provide a hint of Hosoda’s style throughout. The human characters appear and animated more down-to-earth with an occasional humorous facial expression that doesn’t go too far or over-the-top. As for the Digimon themselves, that is where the animation of the movie truly shines and lives up to its potential, thanks to two important highlights.
The first is the creative and exquisite Digimon that are exclusive for the movie. If there’s anything that fans would expect from a Diginon movie, it would be experiencing never-before-seen Digimon or evolutions (or “Digivolutions”) that never occurred on the show. You will be amazed how a computer virus Digimon was heavily influenced on the Y2K bug and two Digimon combine together into a powerful “royal knight” using a sword on one hand and a cannon on the other. This leads to the second highlight: the action sequences. Since the animation quality was given more of a cinematic boost, their character animations are more energetic and when they fight each other, they are exhilarating and fun to watch. The two giant Digimon battle in the first segment, for instance, is a love-letter and homage to the Toho giant monster movie franchise.
As for the background animation, the Japanese/U.S. urban and rural areas are colorful, organic and detailed. However, if you are looking for more visual flair and creative backgrounds, look no further than the second segment. At first, if you see a character looking that their computer screen, the pixel art looks decent and authentic as a Windows 98 PC at the time. But, once you get INSIDE the computer, you are in for a wild ride. The “information super highway” is a CGI digital tunnel where you will get a sense of high-speed travel in a couple POV shots. Once you make it to the Internet, it is an immersive background full of third-dimensional wallpaper and objects. The Internet environment also gives the Digimon characters a stylized look that makes them a mix of between 2D and 3D, along with some impressive effects animation. This artistic interpretation of the Internet and its assets were, of course, later implemented into Summer Wars.
The only criticism I have with the animation is, again, the rushed editing during the third act where the second season characters fight off against the villain. It is so choppy on where they are or who they are fighting against, it becomes confusing and boring for newcomers that just tuned in.
If this movie is your introduction to Digimon, the characters themselves are on the same boat with the previous problems I’ve mentioned. You wouldn’t have enough to time to know or even care about them in the end. Under a general first impression, you will be stuck with a cast of one-dimensional characters.
For the first season characters, Tai is the courageous yet brash protagonist with his partner Agumon. Kari, outside the excessive narration and exposition, is Tai’s younger sister who started out as an over-optimistic toddler in the beginning to a bland, supportive character with her partner Gatomon in the end. Izzy is the computer whiz who assists Tai along his partner Tentomon. Matt is Tai’s best friend who later helps Tai with his partner Gabumon. His younger brother T.K. and his partner Patamon share the same role as Kari.
The rest of the first season cast and their Digimon are reduced to smaller roles and cameos. One of the exceptions is Sora, Tai’s childhood friend. In the show, she is depicted as the kind, caring mother figure of the group alongside her partner Biyomon. But throughout this movie, she acts like more an unlikeable, grouch because of an off-screen fight over a birthday present between her and Tai. The writing executed their conflict more as a “joke” than serious, even when the situation between the virus Digimon becomes dire. Another exceptional character is Tai and Kari’s mother, who will be remembered more for her bizarre recipes (i.e. spinach cookies and beef jerky shakes) and a recurring gag of making a cake than being a generic mother character.
With the second season cast…you know the drill. The only character that stands out of the group is the protagonist Davis and his partner Veemon. Outside his uncanny resemblance to Tai, Davis is the abrasive leader with an obsessive crush on Kari, which would be likely for newcomers to find him more obnoxious than being funny.
And then, we have Willis (or “Wallace” in Japan), the DigiDestined from Colorado and the “central character” that holds this anthology together. His partners are twin Digimon named Terriermon and Kokomon. When Kokomon became infected with a virus, he must travel back to Colorado to save him. The movie also mentioned that he took online college courses at a young age and claims that he accidentally created the computer virus Digimon in the second story, which later affected Kokomon. With all that information said, you’d believe Willis sounds like an interesting character. However, when we do get into him, the writing and editing focuses so much on the humor and stopping Kokomon, we just see Willis as a typical kid on wild, goose chase. In other words, we know OF him, but in actuality, we do not know ABOUT him.
Lastly, most of the villains are not much to say. In the first act, Parrotmon is simply as a giant, bird Digimon that causes havoc and the third act villain, Kokomon, outside his evolutions, is just Willis’ Digimon that got sick and causes unpredictable damage till he is cured. Nevertheless, one of the best villains and characters throughout the entire movie itself is Diaboromon, the computer virus Digimon off the second act. On paper, he is a self-explanatory villain that wants to take over both the real and cyber world. But, thanks to his evolutionary line from a “jellyfish with a contact lens”, a parasitic bug, an arachnid that shoots from his mouth, and finally a diabolic design based on the Y2K bug, he will stop at nothing till he achieves his goal. Even with an extreme close-up of his face will send a chill down your spine. And on top of that, he comes with a deep and threatening voice performed by Paul St. Peter. In fact, many of the voice actors that reprise their roles from the television show did a serviceable and entertaining job. Yes, while I mentioned the writing and characterization is flat, the actors, at least, gave their all of what material was given to them. And keep in mind, some of these anime voice actors like Colleen O’Shaughnessy, Kirk Thornton and Paul St. Peter, actually went places sometime later.
As a movie on its own, Digimon: The Movie is an incoherent mess with an unfocused story, sloppy editing, last-minute pop songs and simplistic characters. Sure, it has impressive animation, effective voice acting and oddly faithful to the English dub. Yet, it is not enough to recommend for general audiences, except younger children. As a fan of the franchise, I still find the movie to be a nostalgic thrill and have its moments that hold up, despite its obvious flaws. For other Digimon fans, I’d highly prefer you watch the three original Japanese films instead. If you are highly curious about the dubbed version, I would watch it…once. Just proceed with caution and keep your expectations low. If you are new into Digimon, I suggest checking out the show first before seeing the movie yourself. I am Digi-done with this review. I am going to take a Digi-nap now.