1994, PG, 119 min. Directed by Isao Takahata. Narrated by Maurice LaMarche. Voices by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, Tress MacNeille, J. K. Simmons, John DiMaggio, Olivia d'Abo, Brian Posehn.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., June 15, 2018
Shakespeare had his comedies, his tragedies, and his historical works. And then there were the problem plays, this weird melding of laughs and nightmares that never seemed to know exactly what they wanted to be (more than one director has silently cursed that the real problem is working out how to produce these awkward hybrids).
The same can probably be said for Pom Poko (to give it its full title, Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko, translated only slightly less opaquely as Heisei-era Raccoon Dog War Ponpoko), one of the most obtuse creations in the Studio Ghibli archive by director Isao Takahata. It was wedged in between two of his most charming family stories (1991's wistful Only Yesterday and 1999's giggly comedy My Neighbors the Yamadas), and it was definitely a change of pace. It was arguably his attempt to stake a fresh claim on the fantastical ground that his Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki had mastered (after all, Takahata was arguably there first, with the groundbreaking The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun). To be blunt, he doesn't pull it off. But Pom Poko is so delightfully weird, and jam-packed with oddities, that it's never dull, even if it is sometimes a little too disturbing for its own good.
The tanuki of the full title are Japanese raccoon dogs (just dubbed raccoons here), a woodland creature that looks like a wolverine, but has the distracted amiability of a hedgehog. In Japanese folklore, they are pleasant-natured shape-shifters who are too easily distracted to be a menace to the human world. But when a massive postwar development outside of Tokyo threatens to destroy their ancestral home, the tanuki of Tama Hills must use their magicks to protect the trees.
If Pom Poko proves one thing, it's how incredibly delicate the balance was that Miyazaki so often struck. One instant, Takahata has his cartoonish little creatures partying and pratfalling; the next they're roadkill. There's a double-digit-size core cast, and if it wasn't for a narration (provided in the U.S. dub by LaMarche, one of a coterie of Futurama alums here) then the vast web of subplots, many of which unravel, would be impenetrable. It's no surprise that it took almost a quarter-century for a U.S. theatrical release, and that's not even taking into account the tanuki's legendarily huge testicles. Here hand-drawn in all their glory, the dubbed script may call them a "pouch," but no one's being fooled.
There's a visual whiplash that reflects the narrative discord. One moment the tanuki have the cuddly edges of classic anthropomorphic Disney; the next, the visceral nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw accuracy of Watership Down; suddenly, they have the rubbery bounce of kids' favorite Doraemon.
Yet, at its best, there's an undoubted thrill and wonder to Pom Poko, like the massive parade of phantoms the tanuki conjure up as one of their harebrained schemes. Takahata's misfire at least provides some wonderful sparkles.