Beware of the Poke Mania

Can such cute critters be bad influences? How one misfit's quest turned into a global bonanza

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Monsters make for disquieting playmates. No matter how toylike and frivolous they may appear, monsters are unnatural and, in the end, deal in unresolved fear. But monsters also have a way with children. Consider the suspicious charms of the Pokemon creatures--Gengar, Cubone and Chansey, for example. The first is a ghostly purple ball with a devilishly cute smile, horns to match and a crocodile spine. The second is a sort of bear cub with a skull over its head--or is the whole thing its actual head? The third is a vaguely dinosauric pinkish cloud. Their equally bizarre compatriots range in height from a foot (that would be a Pidgey) to 28 ft. (that's an Onix) and in weight from 2 lbs. (Diglett) to 1,914 lbs. (Snorlax). Their fighting skills are as feral as ramming (that's Rhydon), as yucky as a tongue wrap (Lickitung--ugh!) or as childish as a tantrum (Primeape). There are more than 150 Pokemon species, and almost any child of 12 or younger, wired with a child's propensity for order, can recite a substantial lineup, complete with arcane attributes and an individual monster's ability to evolve into higher forms. Welcome to the new Mesozoic. The check-out line forms to the far right.

Parents who have had to suffer through the games, the TV series and shopping trips can take some comfort in the fact that the Pokemon demographic is the same one that has abandoned Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers. What may be harder to survive is the relentlessness of Pokemania, a multimedia and interactive barrage like no other before it, with children mesmerized into cataloging a menagerie of multiplicative monsters, with trading cards linked to games linked to television shows linked to toys linked to websites linked to candy linked back to where you started--a pestilential Ponzi scheme (see foldout graphic). Smelling profits, America's conglomerates have pokeyed up to cash in. Hasbro paid $325 million to market the toys. The WB network (owned by Time Warner, the parent company of this magazine) swept up exclusive rights to the top-rated animated TV series. Warner released the Pokemon movie (see review above), which opened on Wednesday last week and saw thousands of children calling in sick from school with the "Pokemon flu." Warner ran out of the trading cards it was giving away to ticket buyers. Meanwhile, Burger Kings in California and Texas had toy shortages for their Pokemon giveaways, leaving scores of children in tears.

The four-to-12-year-old set can exhibit the most troubling fanaticism about Pokemon. Children have written hate e-mail to movie critics who have panned the film. After a screening and being mesmerized by Pokemon battle after Pokemon battle, an excited little boy told his father, "That movie makes me want to fight." Not words parents want to hear.

The Pokemon trading-card craze is at the center of much of the controversy. Colm McNiallais, 11, of New York City is a good guide to frenzy. Passing kids looking to trade, he says, "We don't want them. They cheat." He gravitates toward others who have brought out binders filled with hundreds of cards. A dangerous thing, he says. Some of the stuff is rare, and who knows what other kids will do to get it. Colm has only the cards he is willing to trade. "Hey, you have a Magnemite!" someone squeals. "Oh, I need that Drowzee," says someone else. "Look at these holographic ones." The presence of a elusive Dragonite provokes gasps.

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