The raccoons of Tama Forest are in trouble- human development is slowly but steadily eating away at their territory. Determined to fight back, the raccoons begin rediscovering the ancient art of shape-shifting, honing their abilities until the most proficient students are ready to put them to good use playing tricks on the unsuspecting humans. Unfortunately, even the raccoons’ most inventive strategies may not be enough to drive off the developers and stem the encroaching tide of civilisation.
Ghibli have never been afraid of including environmental issues in their movies, and this time around the message couldn’t be plainer as we see the Tama Forest raccoons take some decidedly original measures to protect their diminishing habitat. Unfortunately, what may sound like a charming family tale in principle turns out to be sorely lacking when brought to the screen.
Given the relatively simple premise behind the film, it may come as an unwelcome surprise to learn that it clocks in at around two hours, a runtime that feels about twice as long as it needs to be. Despite the gravity of their “war’, the raccoons are in general a light-hearted and easily distracted bunch, and all too often the plot is stalled as they stop to enjoy a party or celebration. Admittedly this does produce a few comical moments, such as the point where the raccoons realise they will no longer be able to enjoy fast food if they go so far as to destroy all the humans, but for the most part this light-hearted approach provokes apathy rather than sympathy for their plight. As if to compensate for this, the film does take a turn for the serious in the closing segments, but only succeeds in coming across as heavy-handed; lead character Shokichi even rams the environmental message home by directly addressing the viewer and reminding them to spare a thought for all animals, not just raccoons.
Metamorphosis is the key theme of Pom Poko, and as you might imagine, you’ll be getting to see a lot of it through the course of the film- although unfortunately, the novelty of watching the raccoons practise and employ their shape-shifting abilities wears off after the first half-hour or so. In an attempt to keep things fresh, we are treated to increasingly outlandish and unbelievable shape-changing tricks, up to and including several sequences in which the male raccoons inflate and transform their testicles! And if that last sentence left you rubbing your eyes in disbelief, let me assure you that yes, I was being serious- in fact, it’s one of the more bizarre facets to ever grace a Ghibli film.
Similarly, Pom Poko fails to deliver on the character front, with each member of the sizeable cast coming across as rather simplistic and two-dimensional. Characters such as Gonta, the one who wants to fight and kill the humans, Shokichi, a more level-headed raccoon who believes impersonating supernatural phenomena is the way to go, and Kiyo, the obligatory love interest, all seem to only have a single facet to their personalities, and none of them come across as particularly well developed or likeable.
Visually, Pom Poko fares a little better- the stunning backdrops and “natural’ appearance of the raccoons are certainly as well animated as you’d expect from a Ghibli film. Unfortunately, in the privacy of their own forest, the raccoons take on more anthropomorphised forms that are all too reminiscent of pre-school cartoons such as Care Bears. It also doesn’t help that most of the characters look confusingly similar- to be fair, the animators have done their best to give each raccoon some distinguishing characteristics, but it can be hard to keep track of who’s who at times. Rounding off the presentation, the soundtrack has a traditional Japanese feel, which fits in well with the feel of the movie, but isn’t particularly outstanding.
Pom Poko is a film that far outstays its welcome; with a shorter runtime and a more likeable cast, this could have been quite entertaining, but as it stands, it comes off as more than a little tedious. Perhaps it’s just that the appeal of the film doesn’t translate well for a Western audience, but I can find little to recommend Pom Poko- unless you’re dead set on amassing every Ghibli film ever created, you’d be a lot better off staying well away.