Animation Blu-ray Review

Blu-ray Review: Pom Poko

February 12, 2015Ben MK

Raccoon dog day afternoon...

Over a decade before RJ the raccoon and his group of foraging forest-dwellers went up against their suburban human neighbors in Over the Hedge, there were the shape-shifting raccoon dogs of Tama Hill and their battle against the encroaching human populace. But writer/director Isao Takahata's 1994 film, Pom Poko, isn't just another cutesy animated feature about the adventures of a group of furry animals. Quite the contrary, it's part pro-environmental message, part Saturday morning cartoon and part traditional Japanese folklore. And it's unconventional in more ways than one.


The Film The 1960s was a period of unprecedented economic prosperity for Japan, with much of that growth contributing to the nation's current standing as one of the world's leading economic superpowers. But while that's all well and good for the humans, what about the animals displaced by the resulting explosion of urban construction? Set during that pivotal time, Pom Poko takes a look at things from their four-legged point-of-view, turning viewers' attention to a tribe of wild raccoon dogs — otherwise known as tanuki — who must band together to save their home, the scenic Tama Hills, from being bulldozed and turned into a sprawling housing development called New Tama.

It's a premise that could have easily been spun into a simple-minded children's yarn, but Takahata — who's also known for such acclaimed and thought-provoking films as Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya — takes a more interesting approach, fusing slapstick humor with ancient myth to create a distinctly unique take on a tale of the age-old tug-of-war between man and nature.

Unfolding like a contemporary version of classic Japanese folktales — which often depict the tanuki as being capable of changing their forms at will — the story sees these native residents of Tama Hills using their innate talents to trick their human counterparts. Transforming themselves into a variety of ghostly apparitions, they attempt to frighten the invaders off of their soil. And when their efforts are met with only middling success, they enlist the aid of three masters of transformation from Shikoku island, who offer to help them take their shape-shifting to the next level.

As one might imagine, many hijinks ensue, and a good deal of the film's humor arises from man's various encounters with the tanuki. But Takahata isn't one to simply exploit the situation for laughs. He also brings a welcome sense of poignancy to the story and doesn't shy away from showing the more somber side of the tanuki's struggle for survival (such as when one of them falls victim to oncoming traffic). This dichotomy in the movie's storytelling is further emphasized by its art style, which varies, alternating between the cute and cartoonish and the more lifelike and realistic.

Otherwise, Pom Poko benefits from some stellar off-camera vocal talent. Among the Japanese voice cast, you'll find screen veterans like Norihei Miki and Nijiko Kiyokawa, as well as actors who have voiced (or gone on to voice) characters in other Studio Ghibli productions, such as Sanshi Katsura (Grandpa Piccolo in Porco Rosso), Yuriko Ishida (San in Princess Mononoke) and Rei Sakuma (Jiji in Kiki's Delivery Service). Meanwhile, the English voice cast is equally impressive, as it features the likes of J.K. Simmons, Clancy Brown and Olivia D'Abo, as well as John DiMaggio, Tress MacNeille and Maurice LaMarche, all of whom appeared on the cult-favorite TV show Futurama.

Audio/Visual Fidelity Pom Poko may be one of those rare Studio Ghibli titles not written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, but don't take that to mean that it doesn't live up to the same lofty audio and video expectations. The image is crystal clear and blemish-free; line art is crisp with excellent contrast levels; and there's just a hint of film grain visible. Colors are also well-saturated; and while this film isn't as consistently vibrant as movies like Ponyo or Porco Rosso, what's on-screen is nonetheless rendered wonderfully, especially the subtly-detailed, hand-painted watercolor backgrounds. In terms of acoustics, the featured pair of English and Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtracks do a fantastic job of handling the nuances of the sound design. Everything — from the dialogue, to the ambience of the forest, to the tanuki's battle cries and whimsical sing-song — sounds spot-on. Simply put, there's literally nothing about this A/V presentation to complain about.

Special Features Disney's Blu-ray release bundles in a DVD copy of the film, but the Blu-ray disc itself also includes a couple of Original DVD Bonus Features, both of which have been upgraded to high definition. The main attraction here is a set of Original Japanese Storyboards, which presents all 2 hours of the film in storyboard format, with Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and English subtitles. There's also 8 minutes of Original Japanese Trailers, which strings together two theatrical trailers, one theatrical preview and one promotional film.

The Bottom Line At a glance, Pom Poko may seem like a film mainly geared towards younger audiences, but don't be fooled: just as with its tanuki protagonists, there's much more going on beneath the surface. It's truly a multi-layered and incredibly nuanced piece of storytelling. And just like every other Studio Ghibli film, it looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-ray. Of course, it would have been nice to get a little more insight into the making of the film, but all in all, Pom Poko fans will be more than happy with this latest Disney release.  Ben Mk

Disc Breakdown
The Film  —  
Audio/Visual Fidelity  —  
Special Features  —  

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