Stop me if you've heard this one: a group of forest creatures have learned that their home is being destroyed by thoughtless humans, and must band together to fight back before they lose everything. That brief plot summary (or some variation on it) could be used to describe a large handful of animated movies made over the last few decades (Once Upon a Forest, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, The Lorax), so you could be forgiven for thinking that Isao Takahata's Pom Poko (which does indeed fit that plot description) is more of the same. Trust me: you've never seen anything quite like Pom Poko.
Our story begin in the late 1960s, when Tokyo's real estate market was booming and every scrap of available building space was being eagerly claimed by developers. The government gets in on the action by beginning work on New Tama, a suburban area which will squeeze 300,000 people inside a twelve square mile area. Building New Tama means tearing down one of Tokyo's few remaining forest areas, which is bad news for the tanuki (or Japanese raccoon dogs, henceforth referred to as “raccoons”) that live there. Desperate to save their home, the raccoons begin to explore the limits of their supernatural powers and organize a plan to scare the humans away.
Cards on the table: one of the first things you'll notice about Pom Poko is that it contains a plethora of raccoon testicles. No, strike that: MAGICAL raccoon testicles. Many of the raccoons have the ability to transform their appearance (permitting them to impersonate humans when necessary), and certain male raccoons have the added ability of turning their “pouch” (as it's delicately referred to in the English-language dub) into all sorts of tools, weapons and other useful items. In one scene, a wise, elderly raccoon invites dozens of younger male raccoons to sit on a large red blanket. Then he informs them that they're actually sitting on his testicles. The crowd reacts with awe and appreciation. This sounds crazy (and it is), but Takahata (who wrote and directed) isn't merely letting his imagination run wild: magical testicles actually play a key role in Japanese tanuki folklore. To quote a popular Japanese schoolyard song: Tan-tan-tanuki's bollocks ring / the wind's stopped blowing / but they swing swing swing!
Anyway, you get used to the whole testicle thing after a while, in the same way that you eventually get used to seeing your cat's butthole all the time. Plus, that's hardly the only surprising aspect of the film. We've seen plenty of animated movies featuring life-or-death stakes, but few of them have as much actual death as this one. When the raccoons begin striking back against the humans, their first course of action is straight-up murder. Yes, that's right: the humans start bulldozing the forest, and the raccoons start killing humans. In a morbidly hilarious sequence, one older raccoon suggests saying a prayer for the humans who lost their lives in the “war.” The other raccoons attempt to oblige, but their glee over their success quickly overwhelms their half-hearted stab at respectfulness. Later, the raccoons (mostly) opt for less violent methods of retaliation, but by that point their own body count starts piling up. In one startling montage, we see one raccoon hit by a car and another left to die in a steel trap. Have I mentioned that this film is rated PG?
While it's initially startling to see such unapologetically grim material so casually intermingled with scenes of goofy playfulness, Pom Poko's willingness to let actions have real consequences gives it a gripping forcefulness lacking in almost all of its “save the forest!” cinematic brethren. The fact of the matter is that when a forest becomes a suburb, many animals die in the process. The movie never flinches from that reality, and I'm not kidding when I say that the film's fourth wall-busting call to action at the conclusion has nearly as much cinematic power as Chaplin's speech at the end of The Great Dictator (not that the issues being addressed are equivalent, mind you - I'm merely talking about dramatic effectiveness).
Despite its willingness to embrace harsh realities, Pom Poko is largely a vibrant, energetic film filled to the brim with playful humor. There are a lot of laughs in the flick's first hour, some of which come from the droll narration (mostly provided by Maurice LaMarche, Pinky and the Brain) and some of which comes from Takahata's gift for staging physical comedy. This is a vast, sprawling story which plays out over the course of several years, and the conflict between humans and raccoons contains room for many different story threads and narrative detours. Though some characters are featured more prominently than others, the film doesn't insist on placing a single character (or even a handful of them) are the center of its story. Any member of the raccoon collective can be thrown into the spotlight at any given time.
The animation style is yet another area in which Pom Poko bucks convention, as Takahata freely switches between three different types of raccoon character design. The first is a realistic design, which is generally used during scenes in which the raccoons are doing things that humans see them do all the time (scrounging through trash cans, scurrying across the street, etc.). The second (and most commonly used) is the warm n' cuddly anthropomorphic design, which sees the raccoons standing on two legs, wearing articles of clothing and sporting lots of distinctive facial expressions. The third is an even more blatantly soft, cartoonish design based on the manga works of Sugiura Shigeru, an artist Takahata admired greatly. This last design tends to be employed during moments of intense happiness or deep confusion. It's yet another element of the film which feels a little unusual at first but quickly begins to reveal itself as a smart, unique method of storytelling.
This isn't a perfect movie – it's a little too long and a little too scattershot – but it's rare to find a film that successfully spins as many plates as this one. It's simultaneously funny, weird, inventive, thrilling and heartbreaking, and its message of conservation packs a heart-wrenching punch that exposes many similarly-themed animated movies as the disposable trifles they are. Like the best Disney films of yesteryear, the movie avoids treating its impressionable young audience with condescension. Allow yourself to see past Pom Poko's initially jarring eccentricities, and you'll be rewarded a tale of great depth, breadth, humor and power.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 119 minutes
Release Year: 1994