In the midst of their battle against man, raccoons are hit by cars and ensnared in traps. They use their ingenuity and crazy skills (more on those later) to sabotage construction and kill a handful of humans. They create a fever dream-style parade used to haunt the locals. This kind of adult-level entertainment boasts smart, stylishly trippy animation that veers far from anything that can be called a "kid" movie. But Pom Poko is one of a series of Japanese Studio Ghibli films being distributed in the US by Disney -- so, to the uninitiated, it looks like a warm cuddly Disney movie on the DVD shelves.
The raccoons in director Isao Takahata's film (he also created the gentler My Neighbors the Yamadas) have all the traits of humans. They have a natural hierarchy, build comprehensive relationships... and party like mad. When we ugly humans plan a demolition of their living area to make room for new housing, they band together and plan a dangerous offensive based on a psychedelic talent: the ability to physically transform.
I mean transform into anything. They can stretch, contract, and transmogrify, turning into humans (the coolest trick) or turning, ahem, particular body parts into parachutes. Quite frankly, if you're over the age of 12, you'll be impressed with the animation and creativity, and howling at the weirdness.
Beyond that, Pom Poko is a cool, admirable film primarily because Takahata pulled no punches when he created the movie in Japan in 1994. The raccoons do have their simple "cute" look, but that form is only visible when they're laughing or celebrating. As the plot moves, they quickly slip into squat, harsher, cartoonish animals. And when they're forced to attack, they become a lot closer to the real thing. It's an interesting animation strategy that fits perfectly into the film's overall theme of metamorphosis.
As a writer and animator, Takahata infuses his serious film with comic relief, both visually and with dialogue. When the raccoons learn to take human form, their exertion and training is so exhausting it produces black bags under their eyes. Pretty smart chuckle. When a couple of raccoons scare the crap out of some folks at a convenience store, one poor guy passes out near the front door -- causing the automated door to quietly open and close before Takahata cuts to the next scene.
It doesn't sound like your average animated feature, and it's not. Pom Poko is not as wholly fantastical as a Miyazaki film (the Spirited Away creator is executive producer here), but it has enough of a freaky folkloric feel to be defined as unconventional. And if you've never thought "Disney" and "unconventional" could exist in the same sentence, you may want to check this out.
DVD Note: The Disney DVD package includes a second disc of bonus features, including the film's storyboard.
Aka The Raccoon War, Heisei tanuki gassen pompoko.
Run time: 119 mins
In Theaters: Saturday 16th July 1994
Production compaines: Studio Ghibli, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Nippon Television Network Corporation (NTV), Tokuma Shoten
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 6 Rotten: 1
IMDB: 7.4 / 10
Director: Isao Takahata
Producer: Hayao Miyazaki
Screenwriter: Isao Takahata
Starring: Shinchô Kokontei as Narrator (voice), Makoto Nonomura as Shoukichi (voice), Yuriko Ishida as Okiya (voice), Norihei Miki as Seizaemon (voice), Nijiko Kiyokawa as Fireball Oroku (voice), Shigeru Izumiya as Gonta (voice), Gannosuke Ashiya as Inugami Gyobu (voice), Takehiro Murata as Bunta (voice), Beichou Katsura as Kinchô Daimyôjin the Sixth (voice), Bunshi Katsura as Yashimano Hage (voice), Kosan Yanagiya as Abbot Tsurugame (voice), Akira Kamiya as Tamasaburô (voice)