At this point, it’s fairly useless to ascribe Studio Ghibli qualities to any new anime release, so diluted have such comparisons become, but there’s an undeniable touch of that familiar eco fabulism to Studio 4°C’s latest, Poupelle of Chimney Town. Based on a children’s picture book from comedian cum illustrator Akihiro Nishino, and directed by first-timer Yusuke Hirota — who cut his teeth in VFX and animation work for the past two decades — the film starts out gleefully unhinged, with an absolute bugfuck sequence in which a big pumpkin, a giant pair of lips with bat wings attached, and a bunch of sea creature things sing a maniacal Halloween song about hiding in kids’ baths and sharpening their teeth that would feel at home in a carnival funhouse. But almost as soon as this trippy digression ends, the film veers sharply into uniformly wholesome territory, abandoning any personality on its way to a by-numbers sum portrait of never giving up on your dreams, amidst other such analogous platitudes. In fairness, Poupelle is a distinctly child-facing film, certainly more so than Studio 4°C’s previous international successes: the punk-inflected Tekkonkinkreet and supernatural fantasy Children of the Sea (and that’s to say nothing of the studio’s collaborative work, such as the delightfully dark and weird Birdboy: The Forgotten Children).
It’s before the narrative proper sets in that one is teased with the promise of Ghibli-adjacent cli-fi storytelling: viewers are immediately dropped into Chimney Town, a steampunkish place with chugging factories and billowing smokestacks, and a backstory about how no one has ever seen — or, indeed, even believes in — the stars for the perpetual penumbra of smog hanging above. (The fixation on this plot point is so present that it wouldn’t be surprising if the film’s conception was as an adaptation of Van Gogh’s famous quote: “I know nothing with any certainty but the sight of the stars makes me dream.”) Add to that setting the film’s little lead, a young, fatherless boy named Lubicchi who works for a guild of chimney sweeps and who has a distinct Dickensian, ragamuffin quality; equipped as he is with a top hat, bowtie, and suspenders, he more accurately resembles a magician in training. He’s a lonely dreamer, but after he meets Garbage Man — who is a sentient, ambling thing made of, well, garbage, including a bracelet brain (this is more fun to describe than to experience) — and affectionately re-dubs him Poupelle Halloween, he finds that he has courage, purpose, and a new father figure (the whole thing doesn’t feel too far away from Onward’s general shape).
All of that to say, Poupelle is a film firmly rooted in even pre-tween territory, and a certain amount of latitude is fair for flicks so fundamentally orchestrated for wide-eyed youngsters. But even taking that into account, Hirota’s film is an across-the-board hodgepodge with little cogency of theme, thought, or visual. The animation work is the most notable offender; Poupelle is the first fully-3D effort from the studio, and it’s a profound work in progress. Scenes’ backgrounds are richly detailed and textured, effectively setting a world that is at once old-timey and graced with a neon tinge recalling more tech-centric environs. But these compositions are frequently in stark contrast with foregrounded characters and action, which take far more imprecise form, inflecting the whole thing with a sheen of artificiality; this effect, alongside the sheer saturation of color, makes the film look far more like an extended cut scene from a children’s educational game than animated cinema. And still other sequences seem to attempt to replicate 2D or add texture to the 3D’s softness, which always looks sloppy, and sometimes even laggy. Poupelle’s themes are similarly muddled and mishmashed, with its early nods at environmental critique giving way, without any sustained rationale, to notions of anti-knowledge, isolationism, and even economic philosophy. And the film’s musical choices follow this pattern, with a wind- and string-heavy score interrupted throughout by a few, deeply on-the-nose, melancholy pop numbers that accompany montages meant to move the film along. But this particular inane facet means that at least Poupelle of Chimney Down ends on a high-note, a hilariously somber song soundtracking the end credits: “He came on Halloween night. / A man made of garbage, the Garbage Man. / Chimney Town is in a panic. / He smells awful.” The Garbage Man isn’t the only thing here that stinks.
Published as part of IFFR 2021 June Programme — Dispatch 3.