Monday, January 10, 2022

Poupelle of Chimney Town

I was kind of excited to catch up with this one, as I remembered seeing a trailer or images when it ran as part of Fantasia but never managed to get screener access, and it's been so long that I more or less just recognized the name when it popped up as playing locally this week. Thus, I was a bit surprised when the trailers in front of it were mostly for kid stuff, and the movie was pitched a lot younger than a lot of the anime which plays theaters is. Of course, I maybe should have noticed it via the scheduling, with the last show of the day (subtitled) being at 9pm.

Ah, well; it's not like I have much trouble watching stuff for kids, especially when it's done as relatively well as this one, which doesn't talk down to kids and seldom looks cheap. Made for a fairly empty theater, though - I don't think I was the only person there all the way through - I heard laughter behind me at a couple points - but I think they were folks theater-hopping or staff on a break or something.

The film is, if nothing else, a great-looking movie that doesn't waste much time. My nieces have probably outgrown it, but it's probably a pretty good time for kids a few years younger.

Eiga Entotsumachi no Puperu (Poupelle of Chimney Town)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 January 2022 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, subtitled DCP)

Poupelle of Chimney Town leads off with the sort of sequences that most movies use at the climax, which maybe sets unfair expectations for how exciting the next 90 minutes will be. It doesn't quite coast on that opening, but maybe switches to a lower gear until the actual finale, which may get some viewers antsy. On the other hand, this movie is mostly for kids, and there's something ro be said for grabbing a young audience's attention rather than making them wait and then keeping a steady pace.

That opening scene involves a crystal streaking from a smoke-filled sky into a smoke-shrouded city, then taking the shape of a human heart and drawing the garbage from a the landfill in which it landed to form a more-or-less humanoid shape. That being (voices of Mastaka Kubota in Japanese and Tony Hale in English) stumbles into this "Town of Night" on Halloween, where everyone is impressed by the "costume" until turning on him. He almost winds up burned in a furnace, but 10-year-old chimney sweep Lubicchi (voices of Mana Ashida/Antonio Raul Corbo) rescues him and names him "Poupelle". They become friends, but beings as unusual as Poupelle are viewed with suspicion in the most open-minded times and places, and this town has had no contact with the outside world for 250 years, with the smoke from its chimneys so omnipresent that stars have become a myth - one that the Inquisitors don't want spreading.

Director Yusuke Hirota and writer Akihiro Nishino (adapting his own picture book) clearly know the value of a good hook, because they grab their viewers' attention immediately, with the first leg of their movie a roller-coaster ride through its setting, doing an impressive job of making sure that the audience sees what they need to but also allowing things to suddenly seem almost normal when they slow down. What they offer is a steampunk world that by and large resists the temptation to be drab and suffocating despite being defined by its belching smokestacks, instead positing that the people who live there would fill it with color. Everything in this self-contained city is recycled and refined, the new built upon the old without reducing the place to a layered-slum aesthetic. Visually, the film sometimes seems more French than Japanese in its design, drawing on everything from storybooks to side-scrolling video games. It wants its audience to Look At This and gives them a reason to do so.

It pulls back a little once it has immersed its audience enough for them to have the measure of the place, going for a specific vibe rather than a story, focusing on Lubicchi as a kid who has had to take on a lot of responsibility since the disappearance of his father Bruno (voices of Shinosuke Tatekawa/Stephen Root), what with mother Lola (voices of Eiko Koike/Misty Lee) not really able to work with her serious asthma. Poupelle is the sort of companion he didn't really know he needed, also neither quite child nor adult, and there's pleasure in watching them just understand each other while the story inches forward in small ways. There's charm in the Japanese voice performances (I cannot vouch for the English ones), and designs that mesh without the two being mirrors.

Unlike a lot of Japanese animation that makes it to North American theaters, Poupelle is squarely aimed at kids, albeit with moments of melancholy and an odd digression on economic theory by way of backstory (although, oddly, no discussion of how 250 years of burning carbon might be bad and certainly wouldn't hide this city). It's got occasional songs that are pretty on the nose, although the mix of Japanese and English lyrics makes them oddly catchy. The story is straightforward, but almost never slows down to the point where a bright kid will feel patronized, and Hirota and Nishino don't seem to suffer much from the American impulse to wink at the parents or come off as cool, trusting that a good kids' movie well-made won't be a chore to sit through. They're smart enough to keep the grown-up stuff around the edges rather than go down a rabbit hole.

Poupelle of Chimney Town is a straightforward kid-friendly adventure given all the gloss that production house Studio 4°C can give it. The eye-popping scenery and zippy animation are impressive enough that older viewers who go for that sort of thing will likely enjoy watching it at least once.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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