An Absurdly Deep Dive into the History of 4Kids | Part 2: Pokemon – I License You! (1998-99)

To say 4Kids lucked out beyond belief with Pokemon is an understatement. Their existing deal with Nintendo was already very lucrative, but they truly didn’t know full-blown success until Pokemon came on the scene. The Pokemon games had already gained massive success in Japan, due in part to the fact that there were two different versions of the game, Red and Green, and, later, Blue and Yellow, prompting consumers to buy the entire set, or at least Red and Blue or Red and Green, to complete their Pokedexes. It also prompted a lot of socializing with other players since, if you couldn’t afford to buy the other game, you could trade Pokemon with someone else who had the other version.

The game series was certain to be a success in America, and it was, but it was slightly preempted by the anime. Just 20 days prior to the release of the games in North America, on September 8, 1998, 4Kids premiered their first ever venture into English dubbed anime with the premiere of Pokemon.

The first episode of Pokemon that aired in the United States was not actually the first episode in order. To help draw attention to the show and create tension, 4Kids released Battle Aboard the St. Anne with altered narration from its future normal broadcast cut which indicated this was a special preview of the show. At the end, the narrator wondered if the kids would make it through the shipwreck and explained that the viewers would see the start of Ash’s journey the following day when the series would properly start.

While I understand what they were doing, this is a little messed up. ‘Will this group of small children die a horrible death via drowning!?….Anyway, here are the goofy adventures of how these small children started their journey!’ Admittedly, that would make my suggested trolling of them just showing the funeral part of the next episode, cutting to black and rolling the end credits a hundred times funnier. ‘And that’s how these small children got here…..and then they died. The end!’ (Thanks to Bluebaron on Twitter for reminding me of this preview.)

Pokemon quickly became 4Kids’ most popular franchise by several miles, and it would retain that title over the entirety of 4Kids’ life. Being completely fair, 4Kids didn’t dub the series themselves at first. They only produced the dub. 4Kids didn’t have their own dubbing studio at the time nor did they really know how to dub anime, so they contracted out TAJ Productions to do the dubbing work.

TAJ originally started out as a music production company, but they eventually started creating English dubs and other post-production work for anime, video games and cartoons after doing several related projects for clients.

It’s unclear exactly how much 4Kids controlled in regards to the dubbing job. According to Bulbapedia, TAJ was responsible for the casting, script adapting, voice recording and mixing. Everything else was handled by 4Kids Productions.

Considering that 4Kids has an extremely distinct editing, writing, dubbing and production style, it can be assumed that TAJ was following a lot of orders from 4Kids when they were adapting the scripts. Pokemon is known for being one of 4Kids’ most loyal adaptations, all things considered, especially in the early years, and I think a good chunk of credit for that goes to TAJ, especially considering that they were responsible for casting, which meant that they were originally the ones who brought in what would become 4Kids’ dream team.

TAJ dubbed seasons one through five of Pokemon, as well as several anime series 4Kids had acquired the rights to over the years (and one live-action show), but, in 2003, 4Kids would take dubbing duties away from TAJ when they created their own dubbing studio. 4Kids would dub Pokemon for three more seasons until 2006 when The Pokemon Company would take the international rights to Pokemon back and dub the series themselves under Pokemon USA.

Funnily enough, in 2006, PUSA hired TAJ once again to help with the production of the dub from their first outing with the special, The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon, through seasons nine and ten and Movie 09. However, on January 2, 2008, TAJ announced that they were losing Pokemon again when PUSA decided to hire DuArt Film & Video as their dubbing studio for season eleven and Movie 10 onward. In 2013, dubbing responsibilities would be handed over to Iyuno-SDI Group, who dub the series to this day.

One of the aspects that 4Kids had full control over was the music, leading them to create what is one of the most beloved English dubbed anime theme songs of all time with the first Pokemon season’s theme song.

And you can bet your ass that 4Kids loved it some music, eventually selling many of their in-house recorded songs for their properties on standalone soundtracks or compilation albums. 4Kids knew how to make music that was marketable. No matter if it was genuinely great as Pokemon’s first theme or as cringe-worthy as One Piece’s theme song, they always knew how to make earworms. Nearly all of their tracks still stick with many of their fans to this day. Even if we all make jokes about 4Kids and their rapping, there’s no denying that they definitely knew how to make music that was at least catchy and, at most, truly good.

There’s definitely some criticism to be had in that regard, though, as, for the most part, changing all the music for Pokemon or any other show or movie was entirely for their own profit. Selling a soundtrack they made for the property makes them much more money than if they tried to sell the original soundtrack, if they were legally allowed to do so in the first place. Instead, they would choose to remove a great bulk of the music from any property they had, Pokemon included, for many years, and made their own soundtracks and CDs that they could sell and make profit from. Little to none of the revenue from those CDs would need to go back to the original owners since 4Kids made the music on their own and only used the logos and other imaging from what they licensed to sell the product.

4Kids, under LCI, had also partnered with Hasbro to make them the main toy licensee for Pokemon while also signing on a reported “over 100” domestic licensees for other products, including Kraft, General Mills, Welch’s, Colgate-Palmolive, Scholastic and American Greetings. They were going in hard with Pokemon once they knew what they had on their hands.

In November of 1999, 4Kids needed to take Pokemon to the next level with the premiere of their first ever dubbed theatrical movie, Pokemon the First Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, as well as their first Pokemon Short, Pikachu’s Vacation.

And it was…….a complete mess. 4Kids decided to absolutely mangle the movie from what it originally was. They removed the 20 minute long backstory segment of Mewtwo and the other clones. They changed Mewtwo’s motivations to make him, as Norman Grossfeld, President of 4Kids Productions at the time, stated “clearly evil.” This change included making Mewtwo want to completely destroy the world when he didn’t in the original so American audiences wouldn’t be confused by the morally ambiguous Mewtwo who was struggling with existentialism and self worth in the Japanese version.

As mentioned before, they also completely rescored the movie to, quoting Grossfeld again, “better reflect what American kids would respond to.” while also including numerous American pop music tracks, several songs of which have absolutely nothing to do with the movie, lyrically. I’d say the most confusing track on the CD is ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’ by M2M. There’s 100% no romance in here, so it feels completely out of place.

While the pop music thing was obviously done for the sake bolstering soundtrack sales, the score, which would be released on its own separate CD, didn’t need to be made, and the comment about creating a new score to better suit an American audience makes no sense. This statement has no studies or anything to explain why they didn’t think American children responded well to Japanese music, especially orchestral music that had no vocal track. If they wanted to make English versions of the songs with lyrics, fine, completely understandable, but they didn’t, because they very, very, very rarely ever did that, especially in their early years. It’s pretty clear that they were just trying to cover up the fact that they wanted to sell their own soundtracks to the movie. This is especially true since, as Dogasu notes, the orchestral background tracks they omitted from this movie are kept in the dubbed versions of future episodes.

However, replacing the score and nearly all music for their properties will very much become the norm for 4Kids from here on out, whether they actually went ahead with a soundtrack release for the property or not.

Oh and, something interesting that I found while researching for this retrospective – 4Kids recognized that they made the Pokemon identification errors with Pidgeot being called Pidgeotto, Scyther being called Alakazam and Sandslash being called Sandshrew, but they left in the errors on purpose. Why?

According to the audio commentary, they wanted kids to notice….for some reason? I dunno, to make them feel smart or something? They also thought it was plausible for Team Rocket to make those identification errors since they’re dumb.

……Of course that doesn’t change the fact that only two of those misidentifications were Team Rocket’s doing. The third, Pidgeot/Pidgeotto, was done by it’s own Trainer, and with a Pokemon that we’ve seen many times before since Ash has one, which is completely inexcusable if not downright insulting. It’s clear that 4Kids just realized the errors too late and didn’t care enough to fix them or own up to them honestly.

They probably should have been a little more careful with their identifications considering we were literally being taught how to correctly identify every single Pokemon in existence by their silhouette in every episode of Pokemon with the ‘Who’s That Pokemon?’ segment. This really was just a gold star moment for 4Kids in regards to both being incompetent while also being disrespectful to their audience.

4Kids would continue to frequently make Pokemon misidentifications, most notably and most commonly in their movies and short films. So either they continued to do this on purpose for no other reason besides to make them look foolish or they seriously didn’t notice nor care until it was too late – and even then they still didn’t really care.

My money’s on the latter, especially considering that they practically flaunted how little they really knew of Pokemon and how little they cared about making mistakes in this realm when they made the ‘Trainer’s Choice’ segment during Advanced Challenge. ‘Trainer’s Choice’ was a multiple choice question game for viewers to play during commercial breaks that replaced ‘Who’s That Pokemon?’ in the English dub while the Japanese version had removed the ‘Who’s That Pokemon?’ segment and replaced it with a normal eyecatch.

Over the course of the use of this segment, 4Kids made many errors, some more obvious than others. Some of them were misunderstandings of Pokemon types, what had advantages over what, ignoring that some Pokemon had immunities to certain types, while many other mistakes were just flatout embarrassing like frequently misspelling Pokemon names, sometimes giving Pokemon other Pokemon’s names (like mislabeling a Beautifly as a Nuzleaf and then later mislabeling a Sealeo….as a Nuzleaf), and, of course, the most famous Trainer’s Choice mistake, claiming Arbok evolved into Seviper.

To 4Kids’ credit, they did hire someone during Advanced Battle to handle the segment who seemingly knew more about the franchise that 4Kids had owned the rights to for about seven years at that point. Lawrence Neves was credited as handling the segment from then on, and the mistakes lessened by a significant amount, but some fairly obvious mistakes and even another name misspelling remained until the segment was finally removed after PUSA took over.

The film had additional issues in that it was originally released in widescreen in Japan, but the English version had to use a 4:3 aspect ratio, which caused some issues with the cropping and required some additional edits to keep characters in frame when they were talking, but this was more of an issue with Warner Bros. that would be a continued problem for several movies. In 2016, this issue was fixed for this movie as it was finally released in 16:9 widescreen.

Audiences also didn’t appreciate that the English movie was trying extremely hard to jam an anti-violence message down viewers’ throats when it’s based on a series centered entirely around battling captured monsters who utilize incredibly violent and dangerous abilities in battle. All of that seemingly made okay because the Pokemon fighting in this movie during the clones vs. originals match were doing so without the aforementioned dangerous abilities – they were punching, kicking and slapping, which is much less harmful.

They did imply that this was worse because, unlike in Pokemon battles where Trainers or Pokemon will usually stop when the match is clearly decided, they were intending on fighting to the death in the movie’s battle. Still, it came off as largely hypocritical and most likely 4Kids’ desperate attempt to placate parents’ groups who had come to lambaste Pokemon as a whole for being a series about ‘glorified cock-fighting’ that solved most problems with violence.

Even the short, Pikachu’s Summer Vacation, the title of which had been shortened to Pikachu’s Vacation, didn’t get away without being sufficiently messed with. While some edits are understandable, such as changing the Japanese text to English, and removing the end credits to be included in the movie’s end credits to ensure parents didn’t walk out of the movie thinking the short was the entire movie (This was seriously was a viable concern. Some people have stated that, even with the credits removed, some parents tried to leave after the short was over, thinking the short was the movie, and their kids had to convince them to stay.) some changes were not. The most notable being changing the narrator from a gentle woman, voiced by Satou Aiko, to the Pokedex, for some reason, as well as changing the entire score, again, and messing up the opening credits.

While Pikachu’s Vacation didn’t retain the end credits, they did keep the opening credits, and they not only got names wrong, but they wrongfully attributed some credits to the incorrect people. You can see an entire Japanese/English breakdown on BulbaGarden here.

Problems with the movie and short aside, 4Kids knew a major marketing opportunity when it saw one. This was not only their first theatrically released movie, but it was also their first theatrical movie release of a majorly popular franchise when the movie already proved to be crazy successful in Japan. They went hard with their marketing. They not only had the normal trailers and newspaper spots, but they also hooked people in by offering exclusive Wizards Black Star promotional Pokemon cards in select theaters that showcased Pokemon from the movie and short, such as Pikachu, Mewtwo, Dragonite and…..Electabuzz? …Electabuzz wasn’t in the first movie….?

*one Google Search later*

Okay, according to Bulbapedia, an Electabuzz was in the movie as a Pokemon belonging to one of the Trainers in the wharf (Not one of the three who made it to New Island). I honestly didn’t believe that, so I re-watched that scene, and yup. There it is.

Electabuzz PM01

That is literally the only shot of that Electabuzz. It doesn’t even reappear in the end when they’re back in the wharf after having their memories erased. There are so many more Pokemon I can think of that were more prevalent in the movie that would have deserved that exclusive card spot much more than Electabuzz, but I guess they just liked Electabuzz, and I can’t say it wasn’t in the movie.

Nintendo of America or 4Kids or both made a deal with Burger King to produce toys based on the first movie that would be distributed in Kids and Big Kids Meals – little Pokemon plushies that were encased in plastic Pokeballs that doubled as keychains. Oh and there were also the INCREDIBLY COOL 23 karat gold plated Pokemon cards that you could purchase separately at Burger King.

There were six different variations to collect – Mewtwo, Togepi, Pikachu, Jigglypuff, Charizard, and, for some reason, Poliwhirl. Again, I didn’t believe Poliwhirl was in the movie. But, again, technically it was. In the same panning shot where you see Electabuzz briefly, you also see Poliwhirl from the back.

Poliwhirl PM01

*shrug*

I guess I should also question Jigglypuff’s inclusion, but it was an established semi-regular character in the show so it’s not that questionable. Also, maybe it counts by proxy because there was a Wigglytuff in the movie.

I had several toys from this, including two of the gold Pokemon cards (Jigglypuff and Togepi) and one of the plastic Pokeballs with which I got a little stuffed Meowth.

Sadly, the plastic Pokeballs were later found to be a suffocation risk, which resulted in the deaths of two children. On December 11, 1999, 13-month-old Kira Alexis Murphy suffocated in her playpen after half of the ball stuck over her nose and mouth. Burger King eventually recalled the toys, but they were heavily criticized for acting too slowly – at first refusing to recall the toys after the initial death because they didn’t want to incite a panic in their customers. It wouldn’t be until another child nearly died from suffocating on the toy that Burger King agreed to recall them. Even then, they tried to keep it lowkey until the US Consumer Product Safety Commission pushed them on the situation.

To their credit, after that push, they did launch a pretty massive recall effort with commercials explaining the situation airing on TV, offers to exchange the Pokeballs for free small fries, warnings all over Burger King itself as well as the trays, bags and items and even a dedicated 800 number to call for information. However, even with the recall efforts, another child, four-month-old Zachary Jones, wound up dying a month later from suffocating on a Pokeball.

Burger King would eventually get sued by the families of the victims, which was settled for an undisclosed amount, and they quickly made changes to their safety practices and warning labels to prevent future incidents from happening ever again.

Upon the release of Pokemon The First Movie, despite the various issues, it was immediately a massive hit. In Japan, it was the second highest grossing film of 1998, grossing ¥7.6 billion. It debuted at number one at the box office in the US with $10.1mil on opening day, was the only anime film to ever achieve such a status until 2021 when Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train debuted in America, was the highest-grossing movie based on a video game until 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and finally wracked up $85.7mil after closing on February 27, 2000.

In fact, it was such a highly anticipated movie that kids were actually skipping school in droves on the Wednesday that it initially premiered, feigning sickness, and it was so widespread of an issue that it came to be known as the Pokeflu.

Despite being so successful with audiences and financially, it wasn’t nearly as well received by critics, and the entire accolades section of the Wiki, barring one entry, is nothing but nominations for the Stinkers Bad Movie Awards, which was pretty much just the Razzies before they became a thing.

The movie was nominated for Worst Screenplay for a Film Grossing More than $100 Million Using Hollywood Math (Takeshi Shudo), Worst Screen Debut (for all 151 Pokemon), Biggest Disappointment (Films that Didn’t Live Up to Their Hype) (Toho (the original Japanese distributor of the movie) and Warner Bros.), and it won Most Unwelcome Direct-to-Video Release (All nine Pokemon videos released in 1999, including this movie, which is weird because Pokemon The First Movie obviously wasn’t direct-to-video….) The only good award it won was the Animation Kobe award for theatrical films, and, being fair, that was purely a Japanese award for the Japanese version.

The Indigo League series of the Pokemon TV show as well as the first Pokemon movie cemented 4Kids as being a staple in the childhoods of an entire generation, no matter if 4Kids cared about such a thing or not. Truth be told, looking back, the first Pokemon movie’s complete mutilation was a huge warning sign of things to come for the company. It was the first window into their true views on their audience and their level of respect for their licenses. However, as children, fans simply didn’t tend to notice nor care. In fact, many, like myself, were most likely completely unaware of most of the issues with the movie until they were well into adulthood, if they ever learned about them at all, and by that point 4Kids was already long gone.

Still, even I treasure the first seasons of Pokemon and the first movie no matter what 4Kids did to them. Being so tough on the first movie when I initially reviewed it actually hurt my heart because of how beloved it was and still is to me. It’s a terrible commercialized shell of what it once was, but I’d still easily sit down, watch it and enjoy it right this second, just as many other people who were fans as children can also attest.

Pokemon was certainly the goose that laid the golden egg for 4Kids. Financially, they were growing quickly as a result. In just the three months of 1998 that Pokemon had been on the air and the video games and TCG had been in stores, 4Kids enjoyed a 46% jump in revenue from $10,116,800 in 1997 to $14,767,429 in 1998. And for 1999, revenue jumped 310% to $60,482,269. Their net income skyrocketed over these three years from $739,135 in 1997 to $2,743,069 in 1998 and an impressive $23,638,426 in 1999.

One last note for 1999 before we move on – there was a lawsuit where 4Kids as well as Nintendo and Wizards of the Coast were named as defendants. The plaintiff, the law firm of Milberg, Weiss, Bershad, Hynes & Lerachon, on behalf of all Pokemon trading card consumers, sued them, claiming their trading cards were illegal gambling, especially in regards to some packs containing rarer cards than others. The lawsuit was requesting an unspecified amount be paid back to consumers in monetary damages.

In a funny turn of events, the aforementioned law firm that started the lawsuit backed down when they realized that 4Kids was actually one of their clients. Even though they had withdrawn, reportedly three other law firms were continuing with the lawsuit. According to the financial report for 2000, the lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice because the plaintiffs couldn’t or wouldn’t prove why their case shouldn’t be dismissed due to lack of standing. It was appealed, but the appeal was denied in 2002, and the dismissal was upheld.

Next – Part 3: 4Kids 2000

Previous – Part 1: 4Kids as a 4Baby


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3 thoughts on “An Absurdly Deep Dive into the History of 4Kids | Part 2: Pokemon – I License You! (1998-99)

  1. Very interesting read! I have such fond memories of the first Pokemon movie and the first seasons of the TV series. As a kid I totally didn’t notice any of those problems. Though honestly, at the time I didn’t even know that it was a Japanese series or even what anime was. I just thought Pokemon was a fun small monster themed cartoon. I mean, I just watched it on Saturday mornings along with a line up of North American animated series, so I just assumed that it was also from North America. Actually recently I found out the some of my childhood Saturday morning cartoons were German series that were dubbed into English. Lol! I had no idea until I was an adult. I guess my childhood was a lot more international than I thought! Thanks for the post! Looking forward to part 3!

    Liked by 2 people

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