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"Pokémon" Returns to the Indigo League

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With Advanced Generation coming to a close (faster than anticipated, too, thanks to Cartoon Network) and Diamond & Pearl coming over the horizon, we should take a moment to remember what made Pokémon the giant it is today: the Indigo League.

Young Ash Ketchum’s tenth birthday was a life-changing experience: he would become a Pokémon Trainer, traveling across the countryside and capturing and training the various wild creatures. He was a bit late getting to Professor Oak’s Laboratory, though, and so wound up with a Pikachu instead of one of the Starter Pokémon—a Bulbasaur, Charmander, or Squirtle—and it was a pretty unfriendly creature at first. But he and it became pals after they were attacked by a flock of Spearow, and they then went on to explore the world of Kanto with Gym Leaders Brock and Misty. Ash met a lot of fellow trainers, many much harsher than he was, and he even got shipwrecked while cruising aboard the St. Anne. And all the while he was hounded by the notorious Team Rocket.

It’s interesting to compare the series’ start to where it stands today. Pikachu has changed the most. It was unfriendly and quite often too scared to take on the bigger challenges in life—more often than not it would shock Ash instead of battling. Ash himself has also changed from his days as a newbie when he screwed things up a lot. Brock was a lot less sure of himself, and Misty was just a full-on tomboy. And for the first few episodes, Team Rocket was actually pretty serious. Even 4Kids’ editing was different, with no needless time cuts, painted-away English, or deleted original music and Japanese writing. I guess kids actually could read back in 1998.

But how do the episodes themselves stack up? Well, there’s good and there’s bad. When you look at the overall series you’ll see too many filler episodes that just seem to mark time waiting for the next major plot point, and the actual writing is pretty flimsy. But when they advance the plot, the episodes hold up very well, and the series’ overall charm overcomes even the weak episodes. The characters have a pretty good chemistry with one another, although it’s quite obvious that the writers were still figuring things out. A lot of the series’ running gags, such as Brock’s habit of falling in love with every girl he meets, get a more subtle introduction than you might remember: though he’s introduced in Episode 5, Brock doesn’t go into his usual “ga-ga” motions for another ten episodes. And Ash’s Pokémon lineup has a lot of charm. Sure, there’s the Starters and Pikachu, which take up the lion’s share of the screen time, but Butterfree is fun to watch, and Primeape has a great solo appearance.

But pacing in the series is a large problem. I said there are too many “filler” episodes, but, strange to say, the series is also too short. By the end of the 26 episodes in this collection, Ash will have picked up five of the eight badges he needs to compete in the Pokémon League, and there are two stretches where he gets two Gym Badges in the span of three episodes. And since haven’t reached the point where most Gym Leaders get at least two episodes, we don’t spend a whole lot of time with them. All but one of the Gym Battles are cancelled by interruptions from outside forces. And although the one completed Gym Battle, between Pikachu and Raichu, is one of the best in the series’ history, few of the regular episodic battles are amazing. I guess these were the growing pains the series has to go through.

The voice track also shows parallel growing pains. Ted Lewis and Rachel Lillis as James and Jessie do the bad-guy schtick well enough, but the team improved when Eric Stuart replaced Lewis and Lillis toned down Jessie’s sinister edge. Ash’s more-boyish voice in the early episodes is a bit off-putting, but it still works. I only have real problems with Lillis’ Misty and Pikachu. Her Misty has improved, but her Pikachu compares badly with Ikue Otani’s. And, unfortunately, the present release lacks a Japanese vocal track.

Another surprise is the look of the show. I have become so used to digital animation that I had forgotten how the original series actually looked. Though there are some points where the look is very nice, too much of it is composed of limited stills placed over flashy backgrounds. The visuals are further degraded by the TV Tokyo edits that followed the Porygon seizure incident. Pikachu’s electric attacks are either greatly dimmed or the frame rate goes to hell, while all shots of Pokémon coming out of their Poké Balls have been dimmed greatly. I don’t mind the dimming, but I’m annoyed by the stilted electric attacks. The animators also had a hard time keeping the characters on-model: Pikachu’s weight fluctuates between scenes, Brock can’t decide how tall he wants to be, and Pidgeotto can’t keep the same size and shape for more than two scenes. Finally, although the transfer is decent, there is some orange/red color bleeding. So because Pokémon USA/Viz Media stuffed nine episodes onto a disc, all those video problems that anime companies fixed long ago reappear on the present release.

The only real extra on this release is the full-length PokéRap (and yes, Graveler and Poliwrath are still misrepresented in the video), which for some reason can’t be accessed from the menu but can only be found by watching past the credits on the last episode on each disc. And that’s it: no commentaries, no retrospective featurette, no interviews. Packaging is also disappointing: Instead of a stylized thinpak we just get three regular DVD cases inside a flimsy box. And to top things off, the cases have those evil, evil latches on them! While the cover art itself is decent, I do wish they had simply re-used some of the cooler VHS covers instead, as some of those were really nice. Finally, I’m disappointed that the cover labels this release as “Season 1,” because that only furthers the illusion that Season 1 includes all of Kanto when it is spread across both the first and second seasons. I don’t see why they can’t just separate the series by their saga names as they did for Master Quest and Advanced. Ah, well.

But despite these complaints, the Indigo League is still a worthwhile pickup for any Pokémon fan, and it is still a lot of great fun.

Episodes on this release include:
Episode #01: Pokémon – I Choose You!
Episode #02: Pokémon Emergency
Episode #03: Ash Catches a Pokémon
Episode #04: Challenge of the Samurai
Episode #05: Showdown in Pewter City
Episode #06: Clefairy and the Moon Stone
Episode #07: The Water Flowers of Cerulean City
Episode #08: The Path to the Pokémon League
Episode #09: The School of Hard Knocks
Episode #10: Bulbasaur and the Hidden Village
Episode #11: Charmander – The Stray Pokémon
Episode #12: Here Comes the Squirtle Squad
Episode #13: Mystery at the Lighthouse
Episode #14: Electric Shock Showdown
Episode #15: Battle Aboard the St. Anne
Episode #16: Pokémon Shipwreck
Episode #17: Island of the Giant Pokémon
Episode #18: Tentacool & Tentacruel
Episode #19: The Ghost of Maiden’s Peak
Episode #20: Bye Bye Butterfree
Episode #21: Abra and the Psychic Showdown
Episode #22: The Tower of Terror
Episode #23: Haunter versus Kadabra
Episode #24: Primeape Goes Bananas
Episode #25: Pokémon Scent-sation!
Episode #26: Hypno’s Naptime

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