Spell of the Unown - Entei, originally titled Lord of the "Unknown" Tower, is, like its predecessor, a much beloved Pokémon movie. It is one of our personal favorite Pokémon movies too!
The plot of the movie is centered on a little girl named Molly Hale. Molly lives in a huge mansion with her father, Spencer Hale, who could be described as a Pokémon archaeologist. Molly's mother, also an archaelogist, disappeared into thin air two years ago; her father thinks this is due to the Pokémon they've been researching - the mysterious Unown, creatures shaped like letterforms that seem to have an important relationship with humanity and the rise of language in ancient cultures.
During his research, Spencer unearths a box of Unown-shaped tiles; they turn out to contain the real Unown, which whisk him away to their dimension. Molly, having now lost both her parents, is left with the last thing that has any connection to either - the Unown tiles. As she plays with them, the Unown sense her wish for her father to come back; confused by the fact that Molly had been looking at a Pokémon storybook and had previously likened her father to the Legendary Pokémon Entei, what they instead bring into existence is an illusory Entei to be her father. Molly accepts this, and continues to use the power of the Unown to wish for other things - for her house to turn into a crystal tower, and for a new mother. Since at the time she had been looking at a photograph in which she was together with Delia Ketchum, Ash's mother, the illusory Entei decides to bring Delia to Molly and place her in the role of Molly's new mother.
Ash witnesses his mother being kidnapped and taken to the strange tower that has appeared overnight, and so he goes to her rescue together with Brock and Misty. As they approach the tower, Molly turns hostile, not wanting them to take away her new family, and Ash and company have to struggle to make progress. Eventually, they reach the room where Molly has been staying together with Entei and Delia, and they manage to make her understand that Entei is not her father and Delia is not her mother, and that her real parents are gone. All together, they fight to break the spell of the Unown, which also releases her father from the dimension in which he had been trapped. He returns home, and, in the credits, Molly's mother is also revealed to be back.
Note how, in comparison to the plot summary for the Lugia movie, the Entei movie has so much more plot - and, most importantly, so much more meaningful plot. In fact, this movie is among the most plot-heavy of the Pokémon movies. That's one of the reasons why we like it.
Another reason why we like it is because of the theme - this movie is not about a prophecy, but about a little girl coping with trauma. This sort of plot is just more aligned with our personal interests. The way it is presented is also very cerebral - every scene of this movie is full of hints about what it is exactly that's happening, and there's no hand-holding through each plotpoint. This is also because, out of all of the Pokémon movies which were dubbed by 4Kids, this is the one where they did the best job - no pointless narration about life's mysteries, no world turning to Ash; what we get is just the movie as it is - in fact, we think the 4Kids dub might have made the movie even better than the original Japanese version!
4Kids' moment of glory
Yeah, no, really, we're serious! The 4Kids dub reinstated and improved upon a plotpoint that was intended to be there by the writer but was eventually changed in the final release of the movie: the situation with Molly's mother.
Originally Takeshi Shudo wrote the movie with Molly's mother being completely non-existent, as far as the plot was concerned. On the way to becoming the final movie, somehow this was changed to be that Molly's mom is in the hospital and is better by the end of the movie; this pissed off the writer, who had never intended there to be a mom; he objected that adding a mom in the hospital didn't make sense with Molly's wish to have a new mother - if her mother was just ill, she would have wished for her to get better!
In the 4Kids dub, Molly's mother disappeared two years ago, when Molly was very young, and her disappearance is implied to be in some way connected with the Unown. This completely dodges the weird implications that would arise from the mother being in the hospital. The 4Kids edit also has the side effect of redeeming the character of Molly's father Spencer. Let's recap:
- In the final Japanese version of the movie, Spencer's wife is hospitalized. This means that he's off researching some strange Pokémon while neglecting both his sick wife and his lonely daughter. That... makes him a horrible person.
- In the draft by Takeshi Shudo, Spencer's wife is simply not in the picture at all. Since Molly was intended to wish for a mother later in the plot - a mother, but not her mother - she must not know her mother at all. Her mother must be either long dead or very estranged to be so distant from Molly's present. However, this still doesn't explain why Spencer is off playing Tomb Raider with the Unown when he has a little daughter all alone at home...
- In the 4Kids dub, Spencer's wife is also an archaeologist, and she is implied to have disappeared while researching the Unown. So, Spencer is trying to figure out what happened to her by obsessively researching the Unown, which is a much better explanation for why he's not home. Plus, in this version, the reason why Molly's parents end up disappearing is explained by the power of the Unown. It is later a plotpoint that the Unown have the power to grant wishes, but can't exactly read minds: this is what causes them to give Molly an Entei instead of her father, and bring her Delia instead of her mother. What if Molly's mother was researching the Unown and wished to know more about them? The Unown might guess that she wanted to meet them, and whisk her away to their dimension. Then, when Molly's father interacts with the Unown again, his deepest wish is to find his wife: so, the Unown reply to that by also whisking him away to their dimension, since that's where his wife is.
So, somehow, the 4Kids dub is the one that explains the most out of all versions. And it manages to do so in a subtle way that doesn't encroach on the plot.
We are not sure what happened here. Usually, the 4Kids dubs are notorious for taking massive liberties and changing things willy-nilly because they couldn't make the mouth flaps match otherwise, or just because they thought it would be funnier their way (and they're usually very wrong about being funny at all). However, once in a blue moon, 4Kids gets struck by lightning, and we end up with sensible changes ✽.
We really don't know.
The Unown and the power of words
Let's talk some more about the Unown. In Pokémon Gold and Silver, there is an entire optional area - the Ruins of Alph - where the Unown can be found. They are presented as mysterious letterform Pokémon which are progressively unlocked by completing sliding panel puzzles.
In Gold and Silver, this entire sidequest seems cool, but in the end is really disappointing; the Unown are said to have been important to the ancient civilization that built the ruins, but nothing is ever explained about this backstory. The reward for catching all of the Unown is that now you can print them out using the Game Boy Printer, which, lol... We don't need to snark on that.
In Pokémon Crystal, they added a little bit more about the Unown with some extra rooms in the Ruins of Alph which bear cryptic messages from the ancient civilization. That's a little bit more, alright, but that's hardly enough. Especially considering that the Unown appear in the opening sequence alongside Suicune, we expected them to be much more expanded than that. Maybe to have something, you know, to do with Suicune or something? Nope, that's it.
So, when we watched Spell of the Unown, we were hoping that, at long last, we would get some information about the Unown and why they were so important anyway.
The first time we watched it together, we really didn't understand what was going on. Why did the Unown do what they do, and why is it specifically the Unown doing what they're doing? Why are the Unown granting wishes? Who said they had that power? We thought that pretty much any other legendary at that point could have filled that role: it could have been Mew, it could have been Celebi... heck, we would have believed it if Entei said he was committed to granting Molly's wishes - okay, we probably would have complained then too, but it would have made slightly more sense than the Unown. Entei is a magical creature ✽. The Unown are the remnant of a lost ancient civilization; they are writing that became sentient, or the other way around - whichever came first. We would have loved if the movie went into any of that. We didn't even really understand why did they kidnap Molly's father in the first place.
The second time we watched it, we had a few more thoughts about them. The Engrish on Professor Oak's computer screen says that the Unown do not use telepathy, but rather have a vaguer sort of sensing of feelings. It also seems that the power of the Unown stems from the box of ancient Unown Scrabble. What is this Scrabble? Was it just a game? Is it a cursed game (like the titular game in Jumanji)? Is it something like the Millennium Puzzle from Yu-Gi-Oh!, which was used in ritual magic to grant wishes? Since Yu-Gi-Oh! was contemporary with this movie, we think it might have been the influence and that this might have been the intended meaning.
We also see that the Unown are summoned to grant Molly's wishes particularly when she plays with the Unown Scrabble tiles, writing out "Papa" and "Mama" and "Me". Does the power of the Unown stem from the power of writing to make whatever humans imagine become, in a sense, real? Is the Unown Dimension the dimension of all that could be imagined and written down in a story?
Connections to The Neverending Story
We then realized that the plot of this movie actually bears some striking similarities with the plot of The Neverending Story, the masterpiece novel by Michael Ende (and please nevermind the movie "adaptation" of The Neverending Story). Spell of the Unown has a lot of the same features and plotpoints. There is a book representing the main character's wishes, a tower that looks like a flower, a friendly but ferocious lion, a child in an escapist fantasy following the loss of their parents. The child has the power to make whatever they truly wish for in their hearts come true, and this power stems from words. In their fantasy, they become someone different: more adult and more cool. However, their fantasy world can trap them, and, to be freed, they need to remember what they loved about the real world. We don't know if the similarities are intentional, but it is not too far-fetched to think that The Neverending Story was an influence, as it is a major work of literature that has been translated into many languages, including Japanese.
In The Neverending Story, the main character Bastian becomes part of the story he's reading. In the world of Fantastica, he is given AURYN, an amulet inscribed on the back with the words, "Do what you wish". AURYN grants Bastian the power to make his wishes into the story's reality.
If Spell of the Unown was indeed influenced by The Neverending Story, it would explain why Entei in particular is the Legendary Pokémon that is featured in this movie - before we realized the similarities, this decision always seemed somewhat random to us. The featured Pokémon of Pokémon Crystal were Unown and Suicune, yet here we have Unown and Entei? However, if this choice was an intentional reference to The Neverending Story, then Entei is the parallel of the lion Grograman.
One of the first things Bastian wishes for is to meet a dangerous creature against which to prove himself. The creature he wishes into existence is Grograman, whose might is such that he reduces everything around him to desert - forming Goab, the Desert of Colors. Where Grograman runs, the desert appears - a lot like how we see Entei spawn the deadly crystals of Molly's dreamworld wherever he steps.
Both Grograman and Entei are bound to the function they were summoned for, even in tragic ways. In Grograman's case, because he creates the desert around him where nothing can survive, he can never leave the desert or see any other living thing. Bastian previously wished to have the Desert of Colors appear during the day in the same place where, at night, the forest of Perilin flourishes; he thereby inadvertently created a system where Grograman must die at every sunset, allowing Perilin to come to life, until he is revived with the next sunrise, bringing death and the multicolored sands of Goab with him. Grograman accepts his role in this universe, although he is very glad to understand the mystery of it after meeting Bastian.
Similarly, the Entei of Spell of the Unown is bound to the role that Molly has created for him. He exists only in function of her wishes, to the point of seemingly not possessing any free will of his own. He agrees to anything that Molly desires, giving her the reply, "If that is what you wish," a phrase that is remarkably similar to that on the back of AURYN.
Bastian had shown the lion the inscription on the reverse side of the Gem. 'What do you suppose it means?' he asked. '"DO WHAT YOU WISH." That must mean I can do anything I feel like. Don't you think so?'
All at once Grograman's face looked alarmingly grave, and his eyes glowed.
'No,' he said in his deep, rumbling voice. 'It means that you must do what you really and truly want. And nothing is more difficult.'
'What I really and truly want? What do you mean by that?'
'It's your own deepest secret and you yourself don't know it.'
'That doesn't sound so hard,' said Bastian.
'It is the most dangerous of all journeys.'
'Why?' Bastian asked. 'I'm not afraid.'
'That isn't it,' Grograman rumbled. 'It requires the greatest honesty and vigilance, because there's no other journey on which it's so easy to lose yourself forever.'
'Do you mean because our wishes aren't always good?' Bastian asked.
Both Bastian and Molly have their wishes come true, but this power is dangerous. For both of them, they cannot consciously control it; it arises from their own sub-conscious desires. The wish-granting power does not discriminate between their "good" wishes or "bad" wishes, and what they desire might be short-sighted and selfish, rather than what they truly need.
Whether it is right or wrong... I will do as she wishes!
In both Bastian and Molly's case, it is only after many, many mistakes that their wishes start to be truly honest, no matter how painful they might be.
Another similarity between the stories is in the effects of the powers that Bastian and Molly use. For Bastian, the price of using AURYN to create reality is to forget a part of himself. For example, when Bastian wishes to become brave and strong, he forgets that he used to be cowardly and chubby, which leads him to think of himself as always been brave and strong - and his attitude and way of thinking changes as a result of this. Over time, the use of this power leads him to forget everything about who he used to be outside of this imaginary world - to the point of forgetting even his name.
Things never get quite so dark in Spell of the Unown, but the power of the Unown might have a similar effect on Molly. When Molly first uses the tiles and wishes for her dad to come back, she gets Entei. At first, she is a bit confused about seeing Entei instead of her dad; soon, however, she accepts that Entei is her dad, and forgets all about her real dad. When she wishes for her mom to come back, she is looking at a photo in which her real dad and real mom are present, but she doesn't seem to recognize her dad, and she doesn't remember which one is her mom, either - which leads to Delia Ketchum being brought to the tower and placed in the role of Molly's mom. It is possible that this difficulty in remembering reality has something to do with the Unown themselves.
However, both in the case of The Neverending Story and Spell of the Unown, there are some more wrinkles to this concept. When Molly meets the illusory Entei, Entei does not introduce himself as Molly's dad, and Molly is confused as to why is there suddenly an Entei in front of her. It is Molly who asks Entei if he is her dad, because that is what she wants to believe. Entei, understanding what he was created for, tells her, "If that is what you wish", and, in so doing, this new reality is created. It could be argued that the same is true of Bastian: because he wants to believe that he is brave and strong, AURYN grants him the power to be that way - and this process erases the things that Bastian is now no longer. So, for Molly and Bastian both, the reason behind their changes is ultimately more psychological than magical.
In both The Neverending Story and Spell of the Unown, there comes a moment where, to allow for themselves to grow and change, Bastian and Molly must part from the lion with whom they had been living with as if in a pleasant -- but stagnant -- dream. In Bastian's case:
[...] Bastian sat down, [...] and said: 'Couldn't I stay with you forever?'
The lion shook his mane. 'No, master.'
'Here there is only life and death, only Perilin and Goab, but no story. You must live your story. You cannot remain here.'
For Molly, she must say goodbye to Entei in order to return to her real life and heal from the tragedies she has endured.
I want things real again. Papa?
I was created to be the father who could make you happy here. If you would be happier outside, in the real world... I must go.
At the end of Spell of the Unown, Molly decides to return to reality, and accepts that her parents are truly gone -- and nothing can replace them. Something very similar happens to Bastian, but we're not telling you any further - honestly, if you haven't read this book, we hope that what we've been telling you about it will entice you to, because it's one of the best things we've ever read, and we can't sing its praises enough. Maybe we'll make a fansite for it one day.
Who is Delia Ketchum?
Now let us follow up this very serious literary discussion with something very different.
When Delia hears about Spencer Hale's disappearance, she rushes to her kitchen and looks at some plot-important photos she has on her fridge.
Denise remembers how, back in 2001, this movie -- especially those plot-important photographs -- put massive fuel on the fire of the fandom debate regarding the identity of Ash's father. At the time, this was one of the big questions left open by the Pokémon anime, and theories abounded.
The anime never ever addressed this question of who is Ash's father, and at this point, it probably never will.
Thinking about this now, as we watch the movie in 2018, we realize that the question should not have been, "Who is Ash's Dad?" The question we find ourselves asking now is: "Just Who is Ash's Mom?"
Takeshi Shudo revealed that his thought on the matter is that Ash's father is a completely unremarkable trainer that spent the night with Delia as he passed through Pallet Town, and that's pretty much the only important thing about him. It is fairly clear in the novelization and based on things Delia says in the first episodes that Ash's dad was intended to be just some random trainer who is apparently still out in the world, and is something of a failure.
Ash's mom seems to have no ill-will toward Ash's dad. But to as much as it matters to her, he was just a sperm donor. She doesn't seem to think that he is ever coming back, yet she doesn't seem to care one way or the other.
Spencer Hale was a student under Professor Oak. Delia seems to be quite close with him. He was older, attractive, and smart. We can see how she could have dated that.
While it is possible that she had something maybe romantic going on with Spencer, there is also the later photo of Delia with young Ash, together with Professor Oak and Spencer and his wife and Molly.
So, if Delia dated Spencer, it ended amicably enough that both families are good friends. Concerning the "Spencer is Ash's Dad" theory, we personally think it would be just too weird for them to manage to happily be in this group photo if that were true. Unless this is a situation of intense intrigue and maybe even Spencer is unaware that Ash is his son... but this also doesn't jive with the one canonical tidbit of information we even have of Ash's dad, in that he left and went to Viridian City as a trainer. Then again, that's what Delia said to Ash about his father, and maybe that's not true. But we doubt the creators of the Pokémon anime wanted us to go on this wild trip in Headcanon Land -- we suspect that they did have some plan to reveal the character of Ash's dad at some later climactic point, but then the show ended up going on for all eternity and this plot point has completely lost relevance by now (same with an epic battle against Gary, a respectful appearance of the members of The Elite Four, Ash actually facing Giovanni, etc.).
Look at how young Delia was in the first photo! This led us to wonder, how old are all these characters anyway? This is what we got:
In the present
Ash: 10 (canon)
Oak: 50 (canon, as confirmed in Celebi: A Timeless Encounter)
Delia: 29 (extended canon; stated in the novelization written by Takeshi Shudo)
Molly: 5 (apparently canon, according to Bulbapedia?)
Spencer: 36ish (our guess)
Gary Oak: 10 (canon)
Daisy Oak: >10 (game canon, does not appear in the anime)
Molly's mom: This seems to be right before she vanished 2 years ago, so subtracting 2 years from everyone's ages gives...
Ash: 8 at most
Oak: 48 at most
Delia: 27 at most
Molly: 3 at most
Spencer: 34ish (still based on our guess)
Delia: 19 at most, since this is before Ash was born. Yes, canonically, she had Ash when she was 19.
Oak: 40 at most, given Delia's age. As a side note, according to the novelization, Oak wrote his first prominent paper at 20, and became a professor at 25. Because of the existence of his grandson Gary (and possibly also his granddaughter Daisy), this means that Oak became a professor about at the same time when he had his first child.
Spencer: 26ish (still based on our guess)
In the anime, Delia is heavily implied to be in an ongoing relationship with Professor Oak. The 4Kids Pokémon Live Stage Show heavily, heavily implies that Delia had a relationship with Giovanni and also with Professor Oak. From the friendliness shown in the photos in this movie, what, was she dating both Spencer and Professor Oak at the same time when she was like 18?!?!? Professor Oak, who already had his own child -- an adult child who is about have Gary?!? And Delia maybe had a relationship with Giovanni? And Delia also banged whoever Ash's nameless father was at about that same time, too?? Whoa. And everyone is fine with this. Awesome!
Delia seems to have a thing for older men. She's going to be with whoever she chooses. And she raised her son all by herself. And she doesn't care what you think.
Delia is also such a driving and compassionate force of this movie. She wants to help Molly and is almost willingly kidnapped. She's able to break free from the spell, and then directs all of her attention to helping Molly -- not to escaping or ensuring her own safety. Delia is consistently gentle and understanding with Molly as she tries to explain to her the truth of what is going on, remembering always that she is talking with a small child who is suffering from grief.
Delia Ketchum is a role model for the ages. And so are all the other characters who treat her with the respect that she definitely deserves. Delia is always presented as nothing short of an amazing person consistently throughout the anime, and don't you ever forget it.
In conclusion, this is a good movie, even if it took us a few watchings to figure that out.
During our most recent rewatching of this movie, we found ourselves needing to stop and think about things that happen on screen for only a few seconds -- quick pause it so that we can see that better! And then discuss it for twenty minutes!
For a prime example, there's the scene where the news reporter drops the information that Spencer Hale's wife mysteriously vanished -- while Delia is leaving the room with the TV so we only half hear it while we are distracted by watching what Delia is doing and hearing what she is saying -- which, by the way, are also other clues: she's saying, "How much more can Spencer go through" and flipping through those extremely important photographs of the past that are also major clues for the story. So you have to pay intense attention to what the reporter in the background is saying and to what Delia is saying and to what Delia is looking at, and if you are still processing in your brain something that was just revealed, you are going to miss the next thing that is being revealed.
This movie must have been so much less good in the theaters considering that you cannot rewind or pause. There also is the thing that a major plot point is revealed during the credits while, at least in the United States, people are all shuffling out and talking, and the lights have already come on, and the janitors are glaring at you waiting for you to leave so they can leaf-blow all the dropped popcorn out of the theater -- so there's a good chance that in the theaters you missed that important moment.
Similarly, Rosy first saw this movie when it aired on TV, and she did not get it or like it that much, because, yeah, how can you manage to catch and process everything so fast. And she is pretty sure the televised airing she saw cut the entire part during the credits. Oops.
It also took us multiple rewatchings to catch the possible references to The Neverending Story, references that finally provided a plausible explanation for some elements of this movie that have puzzled us for ages.
But while these factors might make this movie very confusing during the first initial watchings, we do think they are part of its strengths overall, and they are a big part of what makes this movie enjoyable. We like to be treated as an intelligent and attentive audience, and to have things to ponder after the movie is over, and for there to be details that might become more important during the second and later rewatchings. Spell of the Unown delivers on these fronts.
It also is a movie that is very good to all of its characters. Ash, Misty, Brock, and all their Pokémon are given fairly equal opportunities to shine. The Pokémon battles that happen during the plot are important and without that feeling of shoehorning in an obligatory battle scene. Even Brock and Misty get to have plot-relevant Pokémon battles! The characters make use of their Pokémon's powers in intelligent ways and don't create plotholes by forgetting that their critter friends can summon water, fire, vines, electricity, and so on if necessary. It's also cool that even minor recurring characters like Delia and Professor Oak have strong character-building roles in this film. Charizard gets to have a triumphant return, and Tracey has a bigger role in this film where he has a cameo appearance than he had in the previous movie where he was supposedly a main character. Jessie, James, and Meowth are relatively minor this time around, but they are there, and they have some good moments. And the new characters of Molly and Spencer are well introduced and fleshed out, to the point where we wish they could have reappeared at some other point in the Pokémon anime as well. Molly in particular is a believable child, something that is incredibly rare for anime characters. All in all, if you like the characters of Pokémon, this is the movie for you.
Overall, we think this movie is one of the best Pokémon movies, and we recommend it. It also definitely is the best job ever done by 4Kids on a Pokémon dub (even if it was probably most likely some sort of ridiculous fluke, heh).
...Oh my god, we just realized... Spell of the Unown. Spell of the Unown. Like, spelling, ABCDE! Fucking 4Kids!
- Another time with think 4Kids did an inexplicably good job: Mewtwo Strikes Back, for example, was otherwise completely mangled by their dub, but somehow they had the thought to make Mewtwo's relationship with Giovanni clearer than it had been in the Japanese version. We don't know.
- In the DVD commentary, Michael Haigney of 4Kids assumed that Entei is part Psychic type, explaining its magicalness (and ability to speak in this movie). As usual, 4Kids made a mistake, but of all the mistakes to make, this is one we can understand.