Thanks to the Pokémon TV app’s rotating schedule of features, my daughter has made me very aware of the franchise’s full spectrum of movie tie-ins. Sometimes you get over-dramatic extensions of the cartoon series that revel in their own spectacle but have no lasting impact on Ash’s story. Other times, you get a fireworks show that only serves to hype the latest legendary creature made available in the games. Pokémon the Movie: Secrets of the Jungle falls somewhere in the middle of that quality spectrum.
Pokémon’s movies have wisely separated from the cartoon continuity. 2017’s I Choose You! set up a new iteration of Ash and Pikachu and set them loose on a fresh journey, without baggage like the show’s other characters or the games’ various regions. This nebulous new world treats the heroes like wandering spectators, always stumbling upon a scenario involving a rare legendary and strangers with some sort of friendship troubles.
Secrets of the Jungle sticks to this formula. Ash and Pikachu meet a boy named Koko, a Tarzan-esque boy who was raised in the jungle by a Zarude he calls Dada. Koko thinks he’s a Pokémon like the monkeys of his father’s former tribe, oblivious to the human world until Ash crosses his path. Their meeting sets off a series of revelations for the young boy, challenging his relationship with Dada, their place in the natural world, and the truth of his birth.
Compared to the last film, 2018’s The Power of Us, Secrets of the Jungle feels like a much tighter narrative. While the second film tried to spin too many plates at once with an ensemble of troubled characters, the third focuses almost solely on Koko and Dada. Even Ash and Pikachu are somewhat relegated to the background. There are fewer battles than I Choose You!, and the film doesn’t feel like a glorified hype reel for an in-game legendary distribution event—although a shiny Celebi does show up for a second, because reasons.
As usual, Pokémon are used to express familiar motifs like nature versus technology, and unity versus greed. What was refreshing, however, was the theme of parenting, thanks to the relationship between Koko and Dada. Even Ash gets in on it, dropping an unexpected anecdote about his own father in a franchise first.
“Compared to the last film, 2018’s The Power of Us, Secrets of the Jungle feels like a much tighter narrative.”
Overall, the journey in Secrets of the Jungle is predictable but pleasant. The art style accents more traditional animation with computer-generated touches, which work fluidly most of the time—except in some instances, like the giant mechanical walker in the climax, where they just don’t blend. There’s also a lot of musical moments I could have done without. A musical montage scene feels out of place for the franchise.
I was initially skeptical of the Tarzan premise, but it was fine, especially when the villain revealed itself. Their identity felt obvious by the midpoint, but once the Meowth was out of the bag, they were pretty impressive for a Pokémon villain. The performance was somewhat hindered by typical “anime bad guy” dialog.
All told, Secrets of the Jungle is strong on narrative but tepid on plot. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it didn’t feel as much like a Pokémon movie. Team Rocket’s skulking around and there are plenty of pocket monsters making cameos, but at the heart of the experience is a mixed narrative I might have skipped, if not for the brand name. For all of The Power of Us’ overambitious storylines, Secrets of the Jungle at least felt more in keeping with the series.