Upon its release 20 years ago this week, Pokémon 3: The Movie (subtitled Spell of the Unown) was lambasted by mainstream critics. It currently holds a 21 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — not a surprising turn of events after the previous two Pokémon films failed to gain critical acclaim in 1999 and 2000, respectively.
Even I who adored all of these animated releases growing up in the early aughts couldn't find many praises to sing after a recent rewatch of Pokémon 3 shattered the nostalgic veneer of my rose-colored glasses. It's way too short, certain pieces of exposition are nonsensical, and select plot beats and characters are ignored entirely. The project was made with younger audiences in mind — and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. And yet, despite the movie's shortcomings, the crux of the plot (a despondent young girl attempting to deal with problems well beyond her years) still struck a chord with me.
It reminded me of my own childhood struggles with anxiety, Tourette syndrome, and the unthinkable fear of losing a parent.
Before Spell of the Unown switches over to the usual heroes (Ash, Misty, and Brock), it spends nearly 10 minutes of its 73-minute runtime establishing the inciting incident. Lauded academic Professor Spencer Hale, a single father raising a young daughter named Molly, goes missing while investigating an alphabet-like species of mythological Pokémon known as Unown. Left all alone (her mother disappeared years earlier), a distraught Molly becomes a conduit for the strange inter-dimensional beings that bring her wildest dreams to life. Much like Frozen's Elsa, the character gives in to grief and conjures a crystalline fortress of imagination that continuously reshapes the landscape of Greenfield, a Netherlands-inspired Jhoto town of flowers and windmills.
The heartbreaking loneliness also pushes Molly to conceptualize a powerful protector, one that comes in the form of the legendary, chimerical Pokémon known as Entei (who speaks with Professor Hale's voice). He must fulfill her every wish, no matter how outlandish, and when Molly says she wants a mother, Entei kidnaps and brainwashes Ash's mom, Delia Ketchum. As a kid, I always saw this as selfish and incredibly reckless, but as an adult, I now see are the actions of a scared child doing her best to cope with circumstances.
My own formative years were marked by similar psychological uncertainty. An overwhelming sense that something bad was just around the corner kept me from participating in sports, attending sleepovers, or even going to school. I couldn't be separated from my parents because if I was, I would never see them again. Or at least that's what my brain always told me. Even at the age of 5, I knew the fears were irrational, and yet, they — along with a number of uncontrollable tics caused by Tourette syndrome — drove me further into my own mind, preventing me from enjoying childhood to the fullest.
I was only half a decade old and carrying a burden that no developing mind should ever have to carry. In short, I was Molly Hale once upon a time.
Looking back, it seems my crippling childhood anxiety may have led to my current love of creativity and imagination. Years of mental alienation inadvertently encouraged me to think up more hopeful realities, where I could be brave and normal. I wasn't truly addressing my issues, only pretending they were permanent obstacles that could only be solved for brief periods of escape. The rest of your waking existence is spent trying to stem back the constant flow of unease and doubt. "Will these things keep me from becoming a proper person when I get older?" you ask yourself while putting on a strong face and doing your best to emulate the courage of the adults around you.
But the cracks are always there.
Pokémon 3 explores this idea when Molly indulges her wish of growing up to be a full-fledged trainer like Brock or Misty, both of whom she defeats in apocryphal battles. To live out her dream, Molly artificially ages herself up with an arsenal of imagined Pocket Monsters (e.g. Flaaffy, Phanpy, Teddiursa) with jacked-up abilities. She completely bypasses the years of experience needed to inhabit such a role, using the facade of maturity to mask her concerns over being able to lead a regular and fulfilling existence in the wake of profound loss. She retreats into the fantasy of courage and maturity without realizing what those concepts mean — as I did.
Thankfully, none of my catastrophic premonitions came to pass (knock on wood) and my parents had the good sense to get me in front of a wonderful child psychologist who gave me the tools to combat my various neuroses — tools I still use to this day. She taught me that while anxiety never truly goes away, it can be managed through a helpful combination of personification and objectiveness. If you ascribe a form to your worries (in my case, it became the "Worry Man") and try to take a step out of your own dire thoughts for a moment, the storm clouds hanging over you can start to dissipate. Part of growing up is learning that worry is an inextricable part of life, but if you let it rule your entire existence, it can be harmful to you and your loved ones.
Molly has a similar epiphany when she's given concrete proof of the destructive nature of her unhappiness and subsequent denial. "I want things real again," she says softly, a cathartic admission that signifies her readiness to come to terms with the uncertainty of it all.
During the end credits, we see Molly frolicking with a real Teddiursa without a care in the world (a visual that has stuck inside my brain these past two decades). Without the need for any dialogue, the viewer immediately knows that Molly is, at long last, allowed to just be a kid. She can have fun and start sowing the seeds of her trainer career without the worry of being left alone.
On top of that, there is a truly happy ending because she does get to reunite with both of her parents.
All of this eluded me back in 2001, but as an adult, I now realize why Pokémon 3 serves as a heartfelt reminder that quieting your demons isn't a matter of wishful thinking. Don't shut yourself away and simply picture a world in which things are better. Accept your flaws, seek help if you need it, and forge a better, happier tomorrow.
There's a great big world out there, and you've still gotta catch 'em all.