POM POKO – Blu-ray review

“Pom Poko” is one of three new-to-Blu Studio Ghibli titles from Disney, along with “Porco Rosso” and “Tales from Earthsea,” that are scheduled for February 3 release. Based on an idea by Hayao Miyazaki, “Pom Poko” is the story of a community of shape-shifting raccoons who struggle against developers that tear down forests and natural habitats to build stacks upon stacks of new subdivisions.

It’s a solid film from director Isao Takahata (“Grave of the Fireflies,” “The Tale of The Princess Kaguya”), but one that will probably strike Western viewers as having at least four “endings”—places where the film felt neatly wrapped up, but then took off in another direction. The runtime is only 119 minutes, but it frankly felt longer because of the false endings, which can also make the film seem like an episodic patchwork.

Once you buy into the premise—that raccoons (called raccoon dogs in the original Japanese version) have the power to transform into anything they want, including humans (watch for someone whose rings under the eyes look just a little TOO dark)—the film has its own kind of magic. While the plot itself doesn’t move all that fast or far, what holds our interest is the artwork and animation, and the various, often mischievous transformations that these animals engage in—first as a kind of training, then as a revolutionary tactic, and finally as a way to adapt. Call them a Far Eastern version of the trickster characters that North American audiences might be more familiar with. But if you watch this with younger children, be prepared to explain the prominent testicles that are visible even when these tricksters, known as “tanuki,” are seated.

The story begins sometime in the 1960s, when a massive suburban development known as New Tama is built outside Tokyo, displacing acres and acres of forest habitat in the process. Fast forward 30 years and two factions of raccoons are so preoccupied fighting over the diminished territory and resources that they hardly notice that there’s more development in progress. Finally, listening to an ageless sage known as Oroku, they decide to team up to fight the developers instead.

When the battle goes poorly, they seek help from their counterparts on the island of Shikoku and learn that they have been able to ward off development by using their shape-shifting abilities to convince humans that the forests are haunted—so haunted that none of them dared to venture into the woods. And so the Tama Hills tanuki refine their shape-shifting skills to better “haunt” their own developer menace.

There are a few surprises in this fairly solid narrative, but mostly Takahata’s animated film is worth watching because of the magical, fabulistic origin story of contemporary raccoons, and the animation and fantastic artwork that fills nearly every frame.

“Pom Poko” is rated PG for “violence, scary images and thematic elements.”

I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc, and the colors and lighting have a consistency to them that can sometimes be lacking in animated films. “Pom Poko” is newly remastered and rich in detail, with only a hint of filmic grain. It’s presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.

The default on this is the English 2.0 DTS-HDMA dubbed version, so if you want to watch it in the original Japanese 2.0 DTS-HDMA with English subtitles you’ll need to the set-up menu. Additional subtitles are in English SDH and French, with an audio option in French 2.0 DTS-HDMA as well.

The 2.0 isn’t a knock-your-socks-off soundtrack, nor would you expect it to be. But dialogue is clear, the prioritization of effects and background elements seems perfect, and there’s no distortion.

This combo pack includes a DVD and an otherwise paucity of extras. The only other bonus features are the original Japanese storyboards and trailers. They’re nice to look at once, but they don’t enhance our appreciation of the film or the filmmaking process all that much.

Bottom line:
Shape-shifting raccoons fighting steam shovels and bulldozers? “Pom Poko” is an inventive, animated pro-environmental epic that offers both light and poignant moments to offset the adventure and fantasy.