POM POKO is the tale of the clash between modern civilization and the natural world. 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 advancement 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.
If there's anything you can expect from a Studio Ghibli release, it's complete unpredictability. As per usual, 'Pom Poko' is "out there," a traditionally animated tale that's far off the beaten path.
In Japanese folklore, their raccoon-like animals (called "tanuki") carry an interesting and very fun backstory. The mythology of these creatures makes them out to be mischievous pack animals with special powers to transform themselves into practically anything. As you'll see in the movie, their powers have no boundaries – but that's exactly as the folklore goes. In speaking with friends who lived in Japan for extended periods of time, these animals are wonderfully beloved shapeshifting creatures – so much so that you can't go around town without seeing countless statues of them outside homes and storefronts. Knowing how grand this lore is in Japanese culture makes the story of 'Pom Poko' have so much more meaning, especially in the end.
'Pom Poko' begins with an introduction to the world of these wild animals. Divided into two groups (that are recognizable by either red or blue articles of clothing), long ago they discovered and fell in love with the simple lifestyle that can only be found in the countryside. Their relaxed style of living made them abandon and forget about their power to transform their bodies into anything that the mind can imagine. The only time that their powers instinctually come out is when battles erupt between the two groups, but even then it's minimal transformation.
As human society has evolved to the way we now know it, the wilderness home of the tanuki has become smaller and smaller. With construction and deforestation encroaching, it's time for them to revisit their powers and stand up for themselves. Fighting together, there's no limit as to what they're capable of.
Countless movies like 'Avatar' and 'The Happening' have tackled environmental issues like those in 'Pom Poko.' The over-abundance of these preachy movies has stripped the fun out of most – yet 'Pom Poko' manages to not feel preachy at all. Unlike 'Ferngully' and many of the others, the story doesn't revolve around a single character that's in the middle of a love triangle. The weight of the story – the "we must stop the humans or we're all going to die" point-of-view – makes it more than just an environmentalist flick. It makes 'Pom Poko' something that you can actually (and oddly) invest in.
Like other Ghibli titles, there's quite a strangeness about it too – one thing in particular that's so odd (and funny) and unsuitable for American culture that I was really surprised to see it in a Disney-distributed Blu-ray. You see, in the Japanese folklore, the tanuki have gigantic magical scrota (the plural of "scrotum" – I had to look it up). The anatomically correct creatures can stretch their "pouches" out to be larger than life, which aids them in their hijinks to boot the humans off their land. There's something a little off-putting about watchingg them stretch out the skin of their sacks to the size of a school bus with your two young daughters watching. Luckily, my kids didn't ask questions – but I don't know how long that's going to last. I'm not looking forward to the day that they're watching 'Pom Poko' and the question comes up, "Dad, what are those bumps between their legs?" While this isn't a question for those who grew up with tales of the tanuki, it's surely a taboo topic to discuss for us westerners.
My only complaint with 'Pom Poko' is its runtime. It clocks in at an even two hours, which is 30 or 40 minutes longer than it needed to be. The material becomes repetitious, feeling drawn out and bloated – but having said that, it's absolutely worth it just to get to the climax. Being a movie that's filled with wacky animal shenanigans, it comes together in the end in the most beautiful, sentimental and satisfying way. It's an absolutely perfect way to bring it to a close and one of the strongest elements for inspiring repeat viewing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Disney has given 'Pom Poko' a combo pack release that includes both a Region A/B/C BD-50 and a DVD copy. A Disney Movie Rewards code is also included in this two-disc Elite keepcase. A cardboard slipcover comes with it. A "New on Blu-ray" sticker is slapped on the front and can easily be removed without leaving residue. Upon inserting the disc into your player, following a Disney vanity reel and an unskippable Disney promo reel, skippable trailers for '101 Dalmatians,' 'Inside Out' and 'Big Hero 6' run along with an anti-smoking ad.
'Pom Poko' has received a wonderful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 remaster that leaves very little traces to it being 20 years old. Like many of the classic Disney animated movies, the background imagery is gorgeous, the stuff of fantastic childhood dreams. While 'Sleeping Beauty' features highly detailed backgrounds, those of 'Pom Poko' are done with with watercolors that fittingly span the spectrum in terms of vibrancy and hue. When we first see the forest as it used to be, it's warm, cozy and inviting. The style will make you wish is was a real visitable location. But when the construction moves in and deforestation results, the beauty begins to fade. The once-desirable colorization is replaced with lifeless earthy shades.
No matter the setting, there's a crisp clarity to the picture. You'd never assume that 'Pom Poko' is as old as it is based on its visual quality. The only age-caused flaw are some very occasional white specks that pop up here and there. They're not common at all. You won't see any runs, scratches, discolorization or debris. It's completely clean. Sharp lines are well-defined. This is the type of knock-out presentation that will make you wish mainstream traditional animation was still alive and well in the U.S.; luckily, we can count on Studio Ghibli to deliver the goods since Disney will not produce any on their own.
'Pom Poko' has three audio options, two of which are sure to please the vast majority of those Studio Ghibli fans out there. For those who enjoy the Disney-produced English dubbed versions, one is included with a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. For the purists who want to experience Ghibli films in their native Japanese language with English subtitles, there's also a 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track in Japanese. No matter how you like to hear your Ghibli films, both languages are available in lossless formats.
A 5.1 audio track would have been nice here, but this 2.0 mix gets the job done very well. The audio is not only absolutely clear, but it's quite a bit louder than the standard mix. Between the two channels is a harmonious blending of dialog, music and effects. The dialog – especially the frequently-used narration – is sharp. Through the chaotic group dialog, not a word is lost. You'd suspect that this full mix could become congested, but it never feels crowded. The effects mixing, which actually gets a little wild during human combat sequences, is strong. The score is also evenly leveled. The only problem that I could find within was a lack of clarity in the voices in the songs sung by the tanuki. It's hard to distinguish the lyrics they're singing - but that's it. The rest is fantastic.
Each of the included special features has been brought over in HD form from the original 'Pom Poko' DVD release.
'Pom Poko' may not be one of Studio Ghibli's most beloved and cherished titles - it may not even come close to being their best - but that doesn't mean it's not worth watching/owning. Not only is it playfully entertaining, but it features an unexpectedly delightful ending. The only warning that I offer for parents is the odd way in which the tanuki use their magical scrota. While this genital lore may not be strange for those who already know it, it's certainly a little off-putting for those who don't. This 20-year-old film carries a near-perfect video transfer and two very strong lossless two-channel audio mixes (Japanese and English). One special feature is noteworthy, but the disc is lacking in that area; however, 'Pom Poko' is still a worthy Blu-ray – especially if you're a collector of all things Ghibli.