Depending on whom you ask, you'll receive various definitions of the Pokémon phenomenon:
"It's like dice for little kids."
"Trading cards, only with story lines attached to each character."
"Pocket Monsters - poké-mon, get it? Like action figures."
All of those descriptions make partial sense, but stop short of explaining the unbridled devotion that's accorded to Pokémon by millions of children. Think of the hula hoop, Davy Crockett, Beanie Babies or the Pet Rock times 100, and you'll have a basic grasp of the mania.
The property's Nintendo Game Boy games and animated TV show -- which dominates the early-morning ratings on the Kids' WB! network -- are already supported by massive promotions at burger joints and bookstores. The movie, made in Japan and nicely dubbed into English, affords us grown-ups some insight into what's going on.
It's actually pretty nifty, and makes it easy to see why even brighter kids are getting swept up in collecting the 57 characters who make up a full set. As shown here, each Pokémon possesses a distinctive personality and set of powers, which enable it to fit into a communal scheme by both challenging and befriending the other characters -- and inspire its owner to devise plots in which all can interact interestingly.
The owners -- your kids -- are called "trainers," and their imaginations guide the actions of the Pokémons.
The movie straddles this conceit that the Pokémons are both powerful and friendly. They compete with each other, yet ultimately do good works.
Essentially, that's how the plot of "Pokémon: The First Movie" unfolds. The film follows the exploits of Mewtwo, a genetically engineered Pokémon with an arrogance transplant that makes him believe he can become "the most powerful Pokémon in the universe." How this status would benefit him isn't made completely clear, but it does permit him to raise a huge ocean storm that strands a group of round-eyed trainers. In a classic confrontation not unlike the penultimate scenes of nearly any James Bond movie, the forces of innocence (led by Trainer Ash Ketchum, a spunky preteen) bare their teeth against this user-friendly Mr. Big. They all thrash about a lot, but not enough to jeopardize their ultimate emergence as proud, empowered and helpful extensions of any junior-high-school intellect.
It's this reassurance and reinforcement that drive the Pokémon fad, empowering kids while not really threatening anyone else (except, of course, those parents who balk at shelling out their bucks for the next Pokémon gadget that arrives on the market). The cynicism of adolescence assures that the fad holds no sway with teen-agers, but for their younger brothers and sisters, the myth's messages are even more powerful than those emitted by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
This is a movie that knows its audience. The animation is bright, colorful and primitive, given to great swoops of motion and avoiding nuance at every turn. That may seem less than ambitious to the rest of us, but a little crudity won't prevent this movie from being seen as an essential supplement to any Pokémon fan's diet. Sophistication isn't even an issue.