Pom Poko DVD (Hyb)
Jon F. Turner - Aug 29 2005 JTurner82@AOL.com
Rating: Pretty good!
Foreign at the surface, gorgeous at the core.
Fans who remember Isao Takahata best for his relentless tearjerker, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, could very well react with surprise and shock upon viewing POM POKO. This lavishly animated tale about raccoons battling for their homeland (which was the biggest hit of 1994 in Japan) isn't so much a heartwrenching tragedy as it is an interesting amalgam of humor, drama, and action--all delivered in a way that is daringly original for animation. At times, the viewer gets treated to scenes which recall the one-two-three emotional punch of GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, but even though the tone of the movie is somber, a handful of lighthearted moments elevate the overall production out of depression.
As this is a Studio Ghibli film, production values are spectacular. Backgrounds are painted with a tasteful mixture of simplicity and art, and the raccoons are as cuddlesome as you would expect--especially when they shape-shift from "ordinary" animals to Saturday-morning-cartoon style critters in the style of shows such as CARE BEARS. (If you're scratching your head while reading this, don't be alarmed--according to Japanese folklore, raccoons have the power to transform into anything--including human beings!) The actual animation is as colorful and imaginative as you might expect from a Ghibli movie--and there is one scene where we are treated to cameo appearances by Porco Rosso, Kiki, and Totoro.
In addition to which the musical score is unconventional for a Ghibli movie, yet at the same time very beautiful and complimentary to the visuals on screen. While there are the occasional soft piano interludes and lovely string/synth ballads, most of the score consists of electric rock/chanting/Japanese-style drum music. My favorite tunes in the movie are the catchy ending theme song--a catchy, joyous songfest performed by Shang Shang Typhoon--as well as the lively country/choral jamboree that plays over the scenes when the raccoons court each other in the spring.
While POM POKO has a story to tell and a meaningful message for one to think about, its character and plot aspects may come across as a bit off-putting to viewers expecting a typical animated feature. Indeed, while some raccoons identify themselves with distinguishable names and/or personalities (for example, Gonta is a burly, rough-and-ready raccoon who is always looking for a fight, while Oroku is the "wise woman" of the tribe), the story offers little in the way of character development. In fact, most of the action in the story is narrated (by Maurice LaMarche in English, Kokondei Shinchou in Japanese), which elevates the overall effect of the movie to that of a semi-documentary. For the most part, this approach works to a very interesting degree and is a refreshing change of pace. However, there were some scenes in the movie where I wished the narration could have been reduced a little bit, as it sometimes gets in the way of appreciating the beauty of the visuals onscreen.
Aside from this, the biggest controversy about POM POKO seems to be centered on several scenes where the raccoons can inflate and/or transform their testicles(!) for multiple purposes. One particular scene involves a raccoon flattening his testicles against a truck, causing its driver to crash. Such moments may be alarming to children, but it is important to remember that while we see the testicles at times, the movie is, after all, animated. Even still, while a Japanese audience may take such scenes naturally, squeamish viewers in America could react differently. In fact, as a solution to handling this kind of translation issue, the English language version (produced once again by Disney) refers to the testicles as "pouches". That's a somewhat awkward decision, but it sure beats digitally removing the testicles from the scenes they're in.
POM POKO was obviously a nightmare for English dub writers Cindy and Donald Hewitt to translate (especially since much of the movie is rooted in Japanese culture), but I really have to commend them for their efforts. There is some Americanizing here and there, but there was little, if any, that I could find missing in their script. In fact, I was most impressed at how they handled the songs; while at least two of them come across as a little contrived and/or corny, others flow so naturally that you never would have sworn that these were originally Japanese folksongs.
Another interesting aspect of the dub is the voice acting. With the exception of Jonathan Taylor Thomas (star of TV's HOME IMPROVEMENT), the cast consists of veteran performers who are known for cartoon voice work; Tress MacNeille, John DiMaggio, Russi Taylor, Andre Stojka, and Clancy Brown, to name a few. Whether this was done to cut down on costs for big-name stars or for avoiding aural distraction is unclear, but when listening to the spirit and energy that the aforementioned voice artists give their characters, it really doesn't matter. For purists, though, the original Japanese language track IS included on the DVD, as is a gorgeous visual transfer (and a disappointingly skimpy supply of extras; all that we get are trailers, TV spots, and storyboards--this is the only low point of this otherwise top-notch presentation from Disney).
POM POKO may be an unusual entry from Isao Takahata, and its foreign aspects may not appeal to everyone, but if given a chance, the film offers a colorful display of imagination and pathos as well as an experience unlike many that one will find from ordinary cartoons.