PIKACHU! (Gesundheit.)

No, it's not a Japanese baby with a head cold. It's the sound you've probably been hearing a lot of lately, especially if you have had any reason to come into contact with a healthy American kid between the ages of, say, 2 and 11.


That's the sound movie theaters will be hearing a lot of in the coming days, as the gajillion-bazillion fans of the Pokemon video game, cartoon show and trading-card characters -- of whom Pikachu is only the cuddliest and most lovable -- line up with their parents' cash to buy tickets to "Pokemon the First Movie," an animated film so review-proof, so impervious to critical assessment, it won't matter what anyone says about it.

Squirtle! Bulbasaur! Charizard! Psyduck! Blabbity, blah blah blah. Most of the film's target audience can't read yet anyway and those who can don't care what some dumb grown-up thinks.

Seriously though, the term "quality entertainment" is not what springs most immediately to mind when one thinks of "Pokemon TFM," an unoriginal warming over of a skimpy Japanese production that has been re-edited, rescored and rewritten for American tots and padded out to feature length with a plotless short called "Pikachu's Vacation." "Cynical marketing genius," maybe, but not "quality entertainment."

For those just getting out of solitary confinement, let me recapitulate the phenomenon, which started in 1996 as software for Nintendo's Game Boy. Pokemon (short for "pocket monsters") are inarticulate but powerful critters, sort of like Beanie Babies with Kryptonite. Human "trainers" capture them in storage units called Pokeballs until they are ready to do playful battle with other trainers' Pokepets. The losing animal is usually knocked unconscious by the other's superior powers (e.g., the ability to squirt water, fire or electricity out of some orifice), at which point it is taken to a Pokemon Center to be nursed back to health.

In the movie, young trainer Ash Ketchum, along with pals Misty and Brock, travel to a mysterious island with their menagerie of good Pokemon to participate in a tournament of sorts against a lineup of evil Pokemon cloned by the most powerful trainer on earth, a catlike Pokemon named Mewtwo who is himself a disgruntled clone of Mew, the rarest Pokemon of them all.

Here's where it gets truly weird: the moral of this pabulum (which comes so force-fed you may think you're a veal calf) is this: Fighting bad, love good.

That's great, except that (and correct me if I'm wrong) wasn't fighting the original point of Pokemon? Ask any 5 1/2-year-old if he thinks that it's bad for Pokemon to fight each other and he'll look at you like you're on drugs (which was how I was beginning to feel after about an hour of this poop).

The updated soundtrack rocks out nicely, but the only slightly better than TV-caliber animation may remind some parents of old Astroboy cartoons with its awkward, out-of-sync lip movement. Even worse, continuity problems crop up in the rejiggered climax, but those will probably only be obvious to the squinty eyes of dyspeptic reviewers.

In the end, "Pokemon TFM" is little more than an innocuous, if lengthy, commercial for more Pokemerchandise (assuming you find commercials innocuous). In addition to the cards, there are remote-control action figures, board games, bedroom slippers and find-the-Pokemon books. Gasps of delight and a smattering of applause even broke out when the mere word "Nintendo" first appeared on the screen.

Now that's a movie even scarier than "The Blair Witch Project."

POKEMON THE FIRST MOVIE (G, 96 minutes) -- Contains bloodless battle and scenes of a boy in jeopardy. Area theaters.