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"Pokémon Advanced" A Breath of Fresh Air

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When we last left our hero Ash, he had just said goodbye to his friends Brock and Misty and gone back home to Pallet Town, which is where Pokémon Advanced Generation picks up. After a week’s vacation and freshening up—he has finally changed his clothes—Ash is now off exploring the country of Hoenn.

DVDs covered by this review: Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 1): A Ruin with a View, Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 2): Three’s a Crowd, Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 3): A Bite to Remember, Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 4): Stairway to Devon, Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 5): A Hole Lotta Trouble, Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 6): A Three Team Scheme, Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 7): Abandon Ship, and Pokémon Advanced (Vol. 8): Jump for Joy

As the journey starts, he has only Pikachu for company, but he soon picks up company in May, a young girl with ambitions to be a Pokémon trainer, and her younger brother, Max (later, Brock also returns). As for antagonists, Team Rocket is back, but Ash and his friends also clash with Teams Magma and Aqua, who are more dangerous than Team Rocket and who are pursuing a mysterious goal.

Many people have called Pokémon Advanced Generation (renamed Pokémon Advanced here in America) the “anti-Johto” and for good reason. Johto was mostly occupied with tedious, uninspired filler episodes and only a few decent story arcs, and it featured mostly dull Pokémon captures. For Advanced the series creative team has sharpened things up considerably. They have given everyone new outfits (except Team Rocket, unfortunately), and there are new Pokémon and a device called a “Poké Navi,” which gives the group directions to the nearest town. This nifty little gizmo also cuts down on those filler episodes where the group wandered about trying to find the next Gym Badge. Where three of the first five Johto stories were filler, Advanced doesn’t have a filler ep until episode 9. But even then, the fillers are good. One, for instances, pounds out some of the best slapstick Pokémon has featured in years as the gang tries to win a year’s supply of Poké Blocks by running an obstacle course. We also get the first appearance of fan-favorite Jigglypuff in what seems like forever.

The characters have also evolved [Har har. -Ed]. Ash has matured since his early days at Kanto, and he no longer whines about everything or sulks after losing a tough battle. Though we saw this gradual change begin in Johto, it is never more apparent than here, especially when he plays off May. Brock is also back with an updated look and a more mature bearing, and here he is plainly the “big brother” of the group.

The new characters are also good, especially May, who quickly develops into one of the most entertaining characters on the show. Unlike Ash, who knew most of the basics of Pokémon Training before heading into the world, May comes with zero knowledge, and her first official battle with Torchic (trying to capture an Azurill) ends horribly, as she is totally unfamiliar with Torchic’s attacks and weaknesses. After awhile, May decides to become a Pokémon Coordinator (Pokémon Coordinators pride themselves on how stylish their Pokémon is), which allows Ash to keep collecting Gym Badges without people wondering how a rookie can be just as strong as Ash. But as the series continues, May becomes a very capable Trainer in her own right and even acquires her own rival, Drew. May might just be the best thing to have happened in the series in a long time. Her brother, Max, can be on the annoying side, but he opens an interesting window into the stories, looking in from the outside, so to speak.

The Pokémon themselves are also fun. Torchic is quite entertaining, similar to the fun-loving Cyndaquil but with the mind of a 3 year-old. Ash’s Corphish is quite possibly my favorite of the Hoenn Pokémon, as it basically does whatever it wants. It doesn’t like to be insulted and will attack anything (even Ash!) when angry, it happily chows down on any food it can get ahold of (even rope and a buoy), and it’s extremely curious, exploring anything that holds its interest, no matter the danger. There are also memorable turns from new Pokémon Taillow, Treeko, Lotad and Mudkip.

Advanced also benefits from the recent shift to digital animation: thanks to the time and money freed up by going digital, the animators get to show off some truly awesome animation. It’s more fluid than anything we’ve previously seen (except, obviously, in the movies), and it gives the battles an extra oomph. The colors are bright and cheery, which is a marked improvement on the pale Johto palette. While there are still some animation cheats, they are few and far between and don’t really detract from the overall quality of the animation. For the most part, Viz does a decent job transferring the visuals, and the only real problems involve some jagged and annoying film grain. Also, Viz has decided to put the Kids’ WB version of the show on the DVDs instead of the Canadian/UK version (which was done on previous Pokémon DVDs), meaning we get some really odd digital paint edits.

Vocally, Advanced sports few changes, which is both good and bad. On the good side, it means the returning characters have the familiar tones and inflexions; on the bad, it means we are still stuck with Tara Jayne (who is a fine actress) doing almost every single little boy in the series and Jimmy Zoppi doing all the old men. The only major cast change has Mike Pollock taking over narrator duties from Philip Bartlett, but it doesn’t take long to get used to the change. Amy Birnbaum does a good job as Max, and Veronica Taylor (who already voices Ash and Ash’s mother) adds May to her repertoire. In the early episodes, Taylor sounds too much like both Ash and his mother, but by later episodes she has given May her own unique spin.

Musically, the series is both better and worse. The original Japanese version practically revamped the entire soundtrack, giving old tunes some new notes and putting in a bunch of new soundtracks. But for some odd reason, 4Kids has (bafflingly) replaced most of this music (except the new Team Rocket theme and some battle themes) with stuff that is five years old. As if that weren’t enough, whoever scores the English version will only deploy a music cue for about a minute or two, and there are even spots where the cue will change three or four times within a single scene. The new English theme “I Wanna Be a Hero” is decent and catchy, but it doesn’t hold a candle to “Advance Adventure,” the first Japanese theme.

There are no extras, unless you count the English opening and closing themes. Menus are also poor, using a stock, static image without music or animation. But despite a lack of extras and a lack of a Japanese track, these DVDs are a pretty decent pick-up. Anyone who is remotely a fan of Pokémon will enjoy these episodes, especially if they enjoyed the Kanto-region episodes. While the series isn’t perfect, it’s still much better than the complete and utter crap we had to go through in Johto.

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