Pokémon fans know that while Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is the first live-action Pokémon movie, it isn't the first Pokémon movie. No, in fact, there are over 20 animated Pokémon movies that revolve around the neverending adventures of Ash Ketchum, Pikachu, and whoever they happen to be hanging out with that year. And while that sounds dismissive, I'm mostly kidding. Ash Ketchum is actually kind of a good protagonist. But are all of his movies good? Well, not really.
I'm not saying all the movies are bad, either. There are a few that, even if you've never watched the show and have no interest in ever watching the show, you should absolutely check out, if only to get yourself more well-versed in the Poké-world before you file in to see Detective Pikachu. I'm gonna rank the top five here, so that you have a quick guide if you find that you have a spare day and need an injection of pure Pokémon straight into your brain.
But I'm also gonna tell you about the bottom five, so you know which ones to stay away from. If the time comes and you see one of these movies about to be played in front of you, stay calm, and walk silently away so that you don't disturb them. Remember, they're more scared of you than you are of them.
Note: The first five entries here are the worst movies, the second set of five represent the best movies.
Worst: Kyurem vs. the Sword of Justice (2012)
For a movie that's only 70 minutes, Kyurem vs. the Sword of Justice feels like an absolute slog to get through. To put it simply, it's about a Pokémon, Keldeo, and its struggle to join a team of stronger Pokémon. That would make up about half of a typical anime episode, but here it's stretched out to an abominable length. And if you hope that the human characters might at least provide some respite, you're out of luck. They're mostly around to compliment Keldeo and do nothing else of importance until the end. If you get the choice to skip one Pokémon movie, please make it this one.
2nd Worst: Jirachi: Wish Maker (2004)
Jirachi: Wishmaker, to put it simply, is like Pokémon movie Mad Libs. Its plot is a how-to guide for what a standard Pokémon movie needs and it's a poor introduction to the Hoenn generation of films, which would all range from average (Ranger and the Temple of the Sea) to great (Destiny Deoxys).
3rd Worst: Black – Victini and Reshiram (2011) and White – Victini and Zekrom (2011)
Creating two films with slight differences as an homage to the fact that most Pokémon games come in pairs (with slight differences) is an interesting idea. However, it would probably be more appealing if the movies themselves were that interesting in the first place. Sitting through just one of these is hard, and the legendary Pokémon that ties the two together, Victini, has always felt like an off-brand Mew to me.
4th Worst: Giratina and the Sky Warrior (2009)
Giratina is a great Pokémon (it can travel through and control dimensions)! However, the menace that you felt from it in games like Pokémon Platinum when evil leader Cyrus wanted to get ahold of it to recreate the world is nowhere to be found here.
Despite Giratina being the lead monster in the movie, you always get the feeling that no one knows what to do with it. Thus, characters spend most of the film just kind of running away from Giratina, as if they're also not really sure what the movie is supposed to be about in the end.
5th Worst: Volcanion and the Mechanical Marvel (2016)
Volcanion and the Mechanical Marvel is the final film in the XY series, a series that was never really able to capitalize on just how charming the Kalos region was. Volcanion isn't unwatchable, but it's purely paint-by-numbers, featuring a mythical Pokémon that you never really get attached to and a story that could've easily been told in one or two anime episodes.
5th Best: Pokémon 4Ever: Celebi – Voice of the Forest (2002)
Depending on your feelings about Pokémon fan theories, Professor Oak is either the world's most secretive Dad or just a weirdo scientist. I love him even if he forgives his grandson Gary's awfulness way too often. And because I love him, it's good to see him play such a huge role in a Pokémon movie, even being the subject of the film's big twist ending.
Aside from that, Pokémon 4Ever is just really gorgeous to look at. Suicune and Celebi are two monsters that absolutely benefit from smooth animation, and the film only really slumps when they shove in some wonky looking 3D stuff. But then again, what would a movie from the early 2000s be if it didn't cram in computerized effects that don't always age that well?
4th Best: Hoopa and the Clash of Ages (2015)
Hoopa and the Clash of Ages is another film from the XY generation, but it beats out Volcanion by simply being pure fan service. Featuring battle cameos from a huge number of legendary Pokémon (thus kind of turning it into the closest that Pokémon will ever get to a Godzilla movie), you can forgive the fact that Hoopa, though it's the title character, is the least interesting thing in the movie. Hoopa isn't a Pokémon movie that tries super hard to get you to empathize with a certain beast as much as it just throws a bunch of your favorites at the screen and hopes you get lost in the chaos.
And every once in a while, I can appreciate that.
3rd Best: Pokémon the Movie: I Choose You! (2017)
This retelling of the beginning of Ash Ketchum's journey doesn't start off strong. Its first act is basically a remake of the first Pokémon anime episode, except less charming and with way more jokes about Ash falling over.
However, the animation looks great and watching a movie devote itself to the bond between Ash and Pikachu is a solid idea. While it will never replace the magic of the early episodes of the anime, it is certainly a good companion piece.
2nd Best: Destiny Deoxys (2005)
Destiny Deoxys isn't very complicated: Its plot is basically about the lead up to one big grudge match between Deoxys and Rayquaza. And while many Pokémon films never really give their legendary monster fights the breathing room they need, Destiny Deoxys gives it plenty of time and allows it to turn into the laser-y, city-destroying battle of our dreams.
It removes all the fluff that you might find in other Pokémon films and strips it down to its most essential elements. And while the film does end with the typical "Hey, this angry death monster might not be so angry and deathy after all, Ash!" theme, at least you get a payoff.
Best: Pokémon: The First Movie – Mewtwo Strikes Back (1999)
One of the worst crimes that a Pokémon movie can commit is not feeling big enough to be worth a movie treatment. And I don't just mean "big" in terms of how many Legendary Pokémon show up or how massive the explosions are. I mean that the stakes have to be heightened and the storytelling has to be more emotionally impactful. And while the Pokémon movies on the "Worst" side of this list all fail in at least one of those departments, Pokémon: The First Movie is both of them done right.
The First Movie tells the story of Mewtwo, a laboratory experiment that's mistreated by humans and thus lashes out against the world. It takes advantage of the fascination around Mewtwo due to its grand, mysterious status in the Pokémon Red and Blue games and turns it into an antagonist you can fear and feel sorry for in equal measure. Combine that with a bunch of great-looking Pokémon battles and an ending that seemed specifically constructed to make 10-year-old me cry, and you've got yourself an A-grade Pokémon flick.