In the late '90s, Digimon began life as one of many burgeoning franchises that jumped on the game-turned-multimedia trend popularized by Pokémon. Few, except the catch 'em all originator, remain today -- save for in the memories of a certain age bracket of millennials. But Digimon, against the odds, has lived on. This year is the 20th anniversary of its original anime series, Digimon Adventure, wrapping up, which is what Toei Animation's Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna ("bond" in Japanese) serves to mark.
Naturally, this means the return of the original group of DigiDestined to the big screen after their first cinematic outing in Digimon: The Movie -- also turning 20-years-old this year. Unlike Pokémon's eternally boyish Ash Ketchum, Digimon has, in the intervening years, made the smart decision to allow its protagonists to grow with its fanbase, a decision which pays off in spades in Last Evolution. Here, Tai, Matt, Izzy, T.K., Kari, Sora, Mimi and Joe are now on the cusp of full-on adulthood, along with all of the excitement and anxiety that comes with having the rest of your life laid out before you.
For those who haven't kept up with Digimon Adventure tri (which Last Evolution is a sequel to) the sight of Tai swigging beer in his own rented apartment and hiding adult magazines from an inquisitive Agumon might come as a bit of a pearl-clutching shock to the system. But don't worry: his goggles and original Digivice are still stashed away in a drawer -- like that one stuffed toy you just can't bear to part with yet.
These nostalgic keepsakes also come to play a key part in Last Evolution's story: around the world, DigiDestined are mysteriously falling unconscious while their partners go MIA. A researcher from an American university, Melua Bellucci, and her assistant approach Izzy, who has a database listing every DigiDestined to look into the strange phenomenon. She also reveals an uncomfortable truth to the original group -- there's a limit on the time they have left with their Digimon, one that's directly tied to their own growth from adolescence to adulthood. The stakes couldn't be clearer. And, the fact that there are stakes that feel so crushingly final in the movie is an impressive accomplishment for something born out of selling collectible monster toys to children.
Investigating the mystery also pushes the film into the unexpected realms of a crime thriller at times, which neatly produces a narrative necessity to return to the technology of old in order to stay, ironically, off of the modern digital grid. Likewise, old faces, friends and enemies alike also make cameos, careful to never outstay their welcome.
But perhaps Last Evolution's greatest achievement is the way it synthesizes story and theme. At times, it's admittedly a bit heavy-handed with its references, and it's a shame that we don't spend more time with the group as a whole; instead, the film functions largely as a two-hander for Tai and Matt. And yet, no one could possibly come out of this final chapter of the original Digimon saga without understanding its message loud and clear -- nor could any longterm fan possibly make it through one of its closing scenes without trying to stifle a few tears. (It's totally fine to cry at a Digimon movie. We won't judge you if you don't judge us.)
Though it doesn't have the distinctive hallmarks of the esteemed Director Mamoru Hosoda, who co-helmed the first movie (his directorial debut, no less), Last Evolution is still handsomely put-together under Director Tomohisa Taguchi's lead. And, that climactic scene, in particular, works so well because of what it chooses not to show, rather than what it does. At that moment, it also becomes clear what the actual "last evolution" for this franchise is. Digimon have become the perfect physical manifestation of children themselves: bright, goofy characters with simple needs and open, loving hearts, filled with so much potential for growth. It makes the specter of separation that much scarier.
Last Evolution isn't a cinematic masterpiece (no surprise there) but what it is is a masterclass on how to age a long-running, commercial property with grace and bring it to a conclusion with dignity. The original DigiDestined's journey, as we once knew it, is over, but this isn't a story about putting away childish things. Much like Toy Story's later installments, it's about the cathartic, slow release of childhood's end. And as for the soundtrack, well, let's just say we could do with a Smash Mouth throwback for the English dub release.
Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna is available for digital download from Sep. 29 on iTunes, Microsoft and Sony PlayStation Network.