Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Pom Poko Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Studio Ghibli presents a film about the clash between modern civilization and the natural world from acclaimed director Isao Takahata. The raccoons of the Tama Hills are being forced from their homes by the rapid development of houses and shopping malls. As it becomes harder to find food and shelter, they decide to band together and fight back. The raccoons practice and perfect the ancient art of transformation until they are even able to appear as humans. In often hilarious ways, the raccoons use their powers to try to scare off the advance of civilization. But will it be enough? Or will the raccoons learn how to live in balance with the modern world? Celebrate the magic of the forest and the beauty of the creatures who live among us in “Pom Poko”—now on Disney Blu-ray for the first time ever.
Film (2 out of 5 stars)
Pom Poko tells the tale of how a bunch of animals is losing their forest due to human development which we see encroach on their territory for a long period of time. The film is essentially an environmental statement disguised as a cartoon and it even ends with a direct message to the audience to help save some space for the animals by carving out room for parks. Between the strident environmental message and the fact that these raccoons are anatomically correct, there's going to be a lot of people that won't be happy with this film. You may wonder like I did why the animators decided to go full frontal on the raccoons and use their testicles for a variety of magical uses, but apparently the whole testicle thing is a part of the Japanese folklore so it was kept. For western audiences, instead of calling them testicles they're called "pouches" but they are still on display.

Cultural differences aside, the movie spends the first hour or so treading water in a fashion, as we see the raccoons get upset about the humans' move into their forest, then their attempt to fight back with their "illusion magic" which only delays the work for a short time and the cycle continues on and on with no change. It would have been more effective to show a couple of attempts and shorten this movie by at least forty-five minutes which also would've helped the movie overall. Instead, we see the raccoons basically do the same ineffective cycle over and over again. It doesn't help that the raccoons themselves can't agree on how far they're willing to go to win the war. One raccoon Gonta (Clancy Brown), is essentially the Malcolm X to Shoukichi's (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) more restrained Martin Luther King Jr. who wants the two species to coexist peacefully.

While Gonta leads his eco-terrorist group in a direct fight against the humans, Shoukichi and his group try to use their illusion skills to try to scare the humans into believing the forest is haunted by spirits. Illusion masters are also sent for so that they can do one last ditch final illusion to end the conflict, but years pass before they show up to help. Some other animals that can't transform into humans lose hope and decide to commit mass suicide by sailing out to sea with no food. Even when their massive illusion is successful, a  human takes credit for the incredible sights saying that it was a publicity stunt for his new theme park. There's no real happy ending for these animals which I guess is kind of the point of the movie.

Pom Poko, from a western point of view is a pretty weird movie. First off is the exhibitionist raccoons who change into three different forms - one that looks like a realistic raccoon, one as an anthropomorphic animal that wears clothes, and another as a cartoony manga looking version which really makes it confusing to watch. It would have been much better if the animators had just picked one version to use for their characters. It was also very odd to see the raccoons use their testicles or "pouches" as blankets, parachutes, etc. For you D&D fans out there, just picture a bag of holding turned inside out and you'll get the picture.

Like I mentioned earlier, forty-five minutes could have easily been removed from this film and it you wouldn't even notice it being gone. While I can sympathize with the message of the film, they way it went about delivering it could have been a lot better. But then again, maybe it's a cultural difference as this film was a huge hit in Japan. Just be aware that between the the character design with their magical testicles, the mass suicides, and the death of the raccoons fighting the humans, that these differences may make western audiences pause before showing it to their young children.
Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)
This 1080p transfer is excellent and it really captures the variety of colors and images that Studio Ghibli intended. The colors leap off the screen in all of their brilliant hues and the detail is also for the most part very sharp. Like other Studio Ghibli recent releases, this painterly look is brought to Blu-ray very nicely and without any kind of print damage like scratches etc.
Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)
Pom Poko's DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track is decent but when compared to the video it pales in comparison. This is another Studio Ghibli film that could have benefited from a 5.1 surround mix but for a 2.0 mix it does the job okay. Of course, the English dubbed version has made some changes to the dialogue for western audiences which renamed the animals from raccoon dogs to simply raccoons and changed or censored their references to their genitalia. The cast for the English version all do a fine job in their roles and it was fun to hear Clancy Brown and J.K. Simmons in the cast.
Extras (1 out of 5 stars)
The extras included on this Blu-ray are the worst collection for the three recent Studio Ghibli releases.  
  • Original Japanese Storyboards - This is a feature length storyboard version of the film comprised of the original storyboards.
  • Original Japanese Trailers - Previews and trailers.
Summary (3 out of 5 stars)
This is the oddest Studio Ghibli movie that I've seen and it's one that I'm not sure works as well for Western audiences as it did for Japan. There's some humorous moments and a good vocal cast, but the story drags on and on and it gets really preachy. The message itself is fine, but the delivery could have been a lot better. The Blu-ray is a mixed bag as the video quality is really good but the audio and especially the extras should have been a lot better. If you are a fan of Studio Ghibli and a completionist, then you should pick this up. For everyone else, I'd recommend renting it if you're curious about it. 

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