Pokémon Horizons review: an evolutionary fresh start for the anime

We were all sad to see Ash Ketchum go, but his still being the Pokémon anime’s 10-year-old main character after 25 years of adventures was a huge part of why the show seemed stuck in the past. Though Ash never really changed all that much, the larger Pokémon franchise did. And while the anime always took cues from the games, it also became very comfortable sticking to its own straightforward formula. 

Considering how buggy the most recent generation of Pokémon games has been, it might be hard to imagine the anime faring all that much better with or without its old protagonist. But Pokémon Horizons: The Series — the franchise’s latest core animated series — has a surprisingly refreshing energy to it that makes it feel like the beginning of an exciting new era.

Pokémon Horizons has an unusually large cast of characters, but it primarily revolves around a trainer named Liko (Alejandra Reynoso) as she embarks on her first real Pokémon journey. As a native Paldean who never previously traveled outside of her home region, Liko feels a bit out of her element as a new student at the Kanto region’s Indigo Academy, where young trainers from across the world come to learn the basics of raising pokémon. But Liko knows that stepping outside of her comfort zone is good for her, and from the moment she meets her first partner pokémon Sprigatito (Kira Buckland), there’s no doubt in her mind that she’s on the right path.

The concept of children regularly attending school rather than being free to roam around at their leisure has been featured in the Pokémon anime before, but the emphasis Horizons puts on Liko being a student feels very much like the series expanding on the educational theme of the Scarlet and Violet games. At the Indigo Academy, studies come before anything else, and Liko’s keen on staying in all of her teachers’ good graces. But when Amethio (Daman Mills) — a menacing boy with a Ceruledge — shows up one day demanding that Liko hand over her grandmother’s mysterious pendant, she knows her life is in danger. And while Liko and Sprigatito put up a good fight, it’s only thanks to the arrival of pokémon professor Friede (Crispin Freeman) that she’s able to get away safely.

Though Horizons is set in the same world as previous seasons of Pokémon, there’s a complexity to its central story and an intensity to its battles that makes it feel like a drastically different kind of show that’s aiming for a slightly older, more action-oriented audience. Whereas Ash just wanted to make friends and battle for glory, Liko’s on the run and in the thick of discovering how many secrets her family has kept hidden from her. What feels most distinct about the new show, though, is how Liko’s story quickly becomes focused on her exploring the world with Friede and his crew — the Rising Volt Tacklers — on their massive airship.

By introducing so many distinct supporting characters like Mollie (Erica Mendez), a pink-haired doctor too cool for the Pokémon Center, and Orla (Mara Junot), the Rising Volt Tacklers’ resident engineer, Pokémon Horizons is able to shift gears between being a weekly one-off adventure series and one that’s telling a more drawn-out story. Once Liko’s with the crew, Horizons shifts its focus to other members like secret streamer Dot (Faye Mata) and her gourmand uncle Murdock (Major Attaway), with episodes that take the Rising Volt Tacklers to a number of different regions in quick succession.

The almost One Piece-like way the Rising Volt Tacklers race across the globe makes Horizons’ take on the Pokémon world feel more cohesive and connected than in previous seasons of the show or most of the games. But as different as the new show feels, you can still see Horizons paying homage to the original series through its second main protagonist, a very Ash-like boy named Roy (Anjali Kunapaneni) who has a special relationship with a legendary pokémon.

Because Liko’s kind of a wallflower and more of a team player compared to Ash — who was a stereotypical shonen protagonist focused on his own priorities — Horizons feels like a proper ensemble series that wants you to appreciate how much more there is to the world of Pokémon than battling. Of course, battles are still important here, and Liko’s character development is most clearly reflected in the way that she and Sprigatito become more powerful as they face new opponents. But the exciting thing about Horizons is how open it feels in terms of being able to take off in new directions as its characters evolve.

While Horizons’ potential to wander even further off the traditional Pokémon anime beaten path is great, it’s easy to imagine it also making the series a bit harder to jump into compared to the original series. But the show’s early episodes feel perfectly calibrated for newcomers to the franchise and diehard fans alike, and with the next big Pokémon game not dropping until 2025, Horizons should be just the thing to tide everyone over while we wait.

Pokémon Horizons: The Series is streaming on Netflix now.