When it comes to the many animated films made by the acclaimed Studio Ghibli, "Pom Poko" is the one I'd probably deem the strangest. This 1994 film directed by "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Only Yesterday" director Isao Takahata feels very different from the other two and even feels very different compared to Ghibli's previous work and I feel it's what makes it unique. It's also certainly an animated film I'd call a lot of fun to watch and one to watch for a good time or a laugh even if it might not be on par with the studio's very best films. It's not one that I'd compare to their beloved animated classics, but it's one that certainly has a lot of unique charm and personality that shines through and leads to another fun film from the prestigious Japanese animation studio.
In a Japanese forest outside of Tokyo called Tama Hills in the late 1960s, a group of shape-shifting raccoon-like animals called tanuki have been living happily with very little disturbance from the humans. However, as the outskirts of Tokyo grows, the land starts to be cleared to make room for houses and development for people to live in. The tanukis become frustrated with the humans clearing down their forests which includes one young tanuki named Shoukichi (Makoto Nonomura), a war-hungry one named Gonta (Shigeru Izumiya), a guru one named Seizaemon (Norihei Miki), and a wise old one named Oroku (Nijiko Kiyokawa), and they along with many other tanukis make their plans to drive the humans away from the development area by mastering the hidden technique of shapeshifting to try to scare the humans away before more damage can be done.
This film sure was a lot of fun to watch and it's one that really made me have a smile on my face. It's another example of just how Studio Ghibli are such great animation masters and how experimental Isao Takahata was willing to get, especially after his serious dramas that he directed beforehand. While the story may not be the most original one out there since animated films about animals fighting back against humans have been told many times before and after this film, what makes this one really stand out is the silliness and the presentation that Ghibli tells the story. I'm usually annoyed with films that use narration to explain things that we are already seeing and have knowledge about, but this is a film where I didn't mind it at all since Takahata frames the story almost like a nature documentary as we watch the tanuki do crazy things like obsessing over human food, watch ridiculous amounts of television, and constantly throw parties as they aren't the brightest creatures out there. It also helps that the film has a very silly tone throughout that helps make it an entertaining watch as we see the characters do absurd things to try to get the humans to stay away from the forest. One notable example is seeing Shoukichi and his mate Okiyo transform into whining spirit children to torment the construction workers and scare them away. Scenes like that were very entertaining and it really helped allow me to latch on to the plot and care about these characters. I was also surprised by the twists and turns this film led as it didn't go down the path that I expected as it ends with an ending that might not seem very happy on the surface.
I like surprises like that and I got to give credit to Takahata for not making the film as predictable as it could've come across. As far as the animation goes, it really is unique for Studio Ghibli's catalog as it leans less towards the realism seen in "Grave of the Fireflies" and "Only Yesterday" and goes for a more cartoony approach with the characters. A lot of scenes are very elaborate and expressive with a big scene most notably being one where the tanuki really put their transformation skills to the test and it results in some amazing animation designs and was undoubtedly the biggest highlight of the film. It also helps that the film's fast pacing really benefits the animation as it allows for some very funny elaborate scenes to be shown that are so strange and goofy that you can't look away. Takahata doesn't entirely skew away from his previous sense of realism in the animation as the way we see the tanuki transform from anthropomorphic cartoony character designs into somewhat realistic raccoons were unique to watch. As far as the characters go, while they aren't as properly developed and may come across as being somewhat thin, are still a lot of fun to watch and have unique personalities among all of them. Shoukichi was a nice character to follow and he has some really cute scenes with Okiyo that were very adorable to watch, Seizaemon and Gonta also had some fun banter and both had some humorous scenes that stood out with Gonta in particular, especially with a scene where he breaks almost every bone in his body. Even the other characters that the tanuki come across in the film made an impression as you could see them toying away with their minds and trying to convince them what to do as the situation becomes direr and direr. While these may not be the most complex characters in Ghibli's catalog, they were easily some of the most fun.
And "Pom Poko" is an animated film that I can simply call a lot of fun. The story was funny and had some crazy moments that stood out very well, the animation is dazzling and really shows what Studio Ghibli is capable of, and the characters while not the most developed still had some fun personalities and great bonding. Even if it may not be among one of Studio Ghibli's or Isao Takahata's best works, this film still was a lot of fun to watch and it's a great film to put on for a good time. It's yet another film from the studio that shows just how iconic and transformative they are.