It’s a very odd time to be a Digimon fan. On the one hand, the franchise’s visibility is the highest it’s been in years, especially outside of Japan. A one-two punch of headline anime projects – the Digimon Adventure Tri sequel film series and the ongoing Digimon Adventure: reboot TV show – has led to a rekindling of interest among the wider anime fandom, and a surge of mechandise and home video releases. Fancy figures, new video games, and even rereleases of the original Tamagotchi-esque toys are all up for grabs to pander to your nostalgia. What’s the downside?
Well, there’s the fact that not much of the actual story stuff that has come out of this revival has been much good. Tri spiralled out of control after a promising start, while the reboot show launched with some flashy visuals but has otherwise been shockingly bad in pretty much all respects. It’s somewhat ironic that just as it comes back into the public eye the series has put out some of its worst product ever, and while nostalgia will take you a long way at some point you have to deliver the goods to keep people interested.
All of which brings us to this slightly odd movie, sandwiched as it is between the past and future of the franchise. Last Evolution (as I’m going to refer to it from now on) was announced before the rebooted anime, but released after that show had already begun its run, yet is not connected to it in any way. What we have here is a sequel to Tri set in the original Digimon Adventure (1999) continuity. Supposedly the last animated work that will be released in that timeline, it’s been advertised as a ‘grand finale’ of sorts, aiming to put a definitive line under the original versions of the characters. That’s a bold claim and naturally one fairly irresistable for anyone who has a connection to the original DigiDestined. I don’t have the childhood connection so many fans of the story do (you can read about my discovery of Digimon on this site) but I’m still deeply invested in these characters, so needless to say I was very intrigued at how this movie would turn out.
Plot-wise, Last Evolution has a fairly straightforward premise. It’s now five years after the events of Tri, and the DigiDestined are adults, either out in the working world or making their way through university, and occasionally stepping back into action when rogue Digimon come rampaging through our world. While most of their compatriots have settled into one role or another, the movie focuses on eternal power couple Tai and Matt, who both are struggling to see where the future will take them. Their somewhat mundane lives are interrupted by the arrival of an ‘American’ professor, Menoa Belluci, who is investigating a series of attacks by a rogue Digimon targeting DigiDestined around the world. As part of the investigation, she reveals to the two that Digimon get their energy from the ‘infinite potential’ of children, and as they are now adults they must soon say goodbye to their partners forever.
This idea of forced separation is the emotional crux on which the entire movie hangs, and it’s a strong choice to do so. Digimon has always been at heart about the bond between kids and their ‘mons, and putting that bond under threat is a great way to create drama and emotional torque. It’s also a smart acknowledgement of how the audience has grown and aged alongside the characters, and a way to connect the conflict to the very adult concerns most of the target audience has. Crucially, it means that this conflict has tangible stakes and we always understand what the consequences are for our heroes. That’s something which Tri struggled with, as it got bogged down in interminable conspiracies and complex plot threads. The Last Evolution plot is simple, and even the inevitable twist won’t blow you away, but it ensures that the important parts are always clear and front and centre and remembers that a Digimon story should be focused on characters.
Speaking of those characters, the ones that the movie chooses to focus on are by and large done justice. Honestly, I’ve probably had enough of Tai and Matt’s tsundere bromance to last me a lifetime, but it makes sense to place the spotlight on them once again. The writing here feels a little clumsy in spots but essentially suceeds in conveying the important themes and emotions that the story is striving to tell. One unexpected pleasure was a fairly prominent role for the Adventure 02 cast, who were basically willed out of existence during Tri. Divorced from their (desperately disappointing) home series, their appearances are a fun little bit of fanservice and an important gesture to the idea of this movie capping off an entire continuity.
The focus on Tai and Matt gives the plot much needed focus and momentum, but the flipside of this is that it effectively relegates the rest of the core characters to bit players in their own story to various degrees. TK and Izzy at least get to be involved in the action somewhat, but still take a backseat once the plot really gets going. Joe, Kari and Mimi’s appearances are little more than glorified cameos, devoid of any substance or insight into their adult lives and statuses. Worst of all is Sora, who seems to perpetually get the short end of the stick in all Digimon stories she appears in. Having apparently taken a vow to stay out of Digimon-related affairs, she barely appears in the movie and when she does it’s mostly to look worried and do absolutely nothing. I was utterly certain this was buildup to a dramatic last minute return, but spoilers, it absolutely is not and she disappears from the narrative without a second thought. The whole thing is a bitter pill to swallow – Digimon Adventure‘s success was built on its strong ensemble cast and to see the vast majority of them rendered irrelevant sits wrongly with this fan, and no doubt many others.
There’s another nagging issue around the edge of Last Evolution, and it’s one that continues to dog the franchise as a whole – overt reverence for the source material. Look, I get that Last Evolution is a nostalgia play to older fans, and we like it when we can point at something and go ‘I remember that!’. But so much of the movie is about the things which happened then that it automatically makes the things which are happening now feel less weighty. Was there really a need for an extended Our War Game! homage (just a few months after the reboot anime did the same thing, no less)? How about wheeling out the ol’ tram carriage for another go around? How about another battle with Parrotmon? To be clear, I don’t think there’s any harm in cute call-back sequences like this, but the film is saturated in them and it gets kind of distracting after a while. They even use Bolero for goodness sake.
It’s especially odd since the movie tries to make letting go of the past one of its core conceits. Thematically there’s a lot of talk about how loss is inevitable and it’s important to let go of the past and move towards the future. There’s even a pre-opening text roll that says ‘This is not a story about the past. It’s a new story about us and our Digimon’. Really though that’s not the case at all. The narrative is so inherently tied to the original Digimon Adventure that it really feels like a story almost entirely about the past. Even the characters reflect this – Tai and Matt are both still students, allowing them to be conveniently be free of adult concerns and responsibilities. Absent a few easy jokes about beer and pornography they might as well still be in high or even middle school.
To be fair I think this may be a deliberate choice to show how directionless the two of them are, but if that’s the case the point doesn’t land with sufficient force. I’m way more interested in how Joe is handling medical school, or Mimi is running a business, but again we don’t get any time with them. I’m not saying I need to see the DigiDestined drink and fuck their way through the movie but some sort of acknowledgement these characters are grownups with grown up concerns would have done a lot to make things feel distinct. As it is, the movie often feels at war with itself, simultaneously handing out nostalgic fanservice goodies in one hand while criticising and chiding us for gripping onto them with the other. It’s a dichotomy which badly destabilises a lot of the attempts at comentary, metatextual or otherwise.
One thing I will give the movie credit for is consistently looking and sounding good. Given how ragged the later Tri installments and the 2020 show have been, that was far from a given, but in general this is a pleasure visually. The character designs dial back Atsuya Uki’s spindly Tri designs a little and strike a happy medium between those and the more rounded classic look. The action sequences are fluid and exciting and while there’s quite a bit of CGI it’s generally used appropriately and effectively. Both the Japanese and English audio tracks reuse the vast majority of the cast from Tri and they turn in strong performances, especially Mayu Matsuoka/Erika Harlacher as new character Menoa.
I don’t want to go out on a negative because I definitely enjoyed Last Evolution, and what’s more I enjoyed it quite a bit more than I expected to. Maybe that’s just Stockholm Syndrome from how bad recent franchise entries have been, but I genuinely think this is a good film and a must watch for anyone with a soft spot for Digimon Adventure. It’s just a very safe film is all. It leans heavily on nostalgia and proven storytelling patterns and knows exactly how to tweak your emotions for maximum reaction. The result is a story which is pleasing to fans and more than acceptable to anybody else, but also one which doesn’t really have a lot new to say about the world or characters. Ultimately, that makes it a little lacking for me, especially as a supposed grand finale to the Adventure story. There’s lots to like, but not much Evolution here.
- There’s a bunch of fun little cameos which sneak in, some more obvious than others. Ones we spotted included Meiko Mochizuki (from Tri), Willis from Hurricane Touchdown!/Digimon: The Movie and several of the ‘World Tour’ DigiDestined from Adventure 02.
- The existence of Digimon – and the role of the Digidestined – appears to be common knowledge, which tracks with the status quo established at the end of Adventure 02 but is in stark contrast to Tri where it was still treated as a major secret….somehow.
- By some distance the least realistic thing in this movie is the idea that perpetual turbo-nerd Izzy would use a Windows machine
- MAJOR SPOILERS: The bittersweet ending of this movie is calamitously undermined by the fact that it fails to retcon the distant finale of Adventure 02, which shows that everyone reunites with their Digimon, gets married, has kids etc etc. In fact, it goes out of its way to reinforce its canonicity by showing everyone working towards their chosen careers. This is kind of a tough situation that the movie can’t avoid, but it certainly undercuts any sort of pathos or emotional closure that the ending provides.
- Seriously, Sora is basically not in this movie, what the hell?