A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the heroes of Pom Poko, a Japanese anime film by Isao Takahata, one of the founders of the prestigious Studio Ghibli, are raccoons -- but raccoons that can transform into anything and everything, particularly humans. It's an environmentally themed story about human invasion of wildlife spaces. Lots of cartoon jeopardy and some scares accompany the intriguing critters as they try to stop urban sprawl. Colorful, fierce, and mythic monsters parade through scenes, and raccoons battle each other with sticks and fight their human enemies with elaborately destructive pranks. The raccoons are responsible for several human deaths and are themselves killed in great number (raccoons who have succumbed to starvation are seen stacked up; others are on-camera roadkill). Despite those issues and its nearly two-hour length, the film offers older kids and teens a unique experience that is funny, touching, informative, and even inspiring. Audiences will identify with the beleaguered little creatures. However, don't look for any sympathetic humans; in the Tama Hills outside of Tokyo, they don't appear to exist.
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What's the story?
Late 1960s Japan. A housing shortage in Tokyo sends construction crews to the Tama Hills on the outskirts of the big city in POM POKO. Developers will put up thousands of new houses, hoping to accommodate the expanding population. But the Tama Hills have been the lifelong habitat of an extraordinary breed of raccoons. Japanese legend has it that these raccoons (tanuki) are capable of magically shape-shifting, transforming themselves into any creature on the planet, even mythical ones. The raccoons know that for their species to survive in its natural home, the construction must be stopped. Led by an array of colorful, food-obsessed, fierce, and heroic leaders, the raccoons embark on a multifaceted campaign to cut the development down in its tracks. The resident raccoons of Pom Poko unleash every kind of prank, battle, shape-shifting, and scare tactic they can muster to stop their enemies. Some tricks are comic, some outrageous, some mean-spirited, some awe-inspiring. Along with their efforts over several years, the raccoons mature, disagree, fall in love, and multiply. When at last it appears the raccoons may be able to delay the project but that human progress cannot be contained, they up the ante even further, willing to risk everything, even their lives.
Is it any good?
At nearly two hours long, with its sophisticated themes and the deaths of many of the raccoons (and three human victims), Pom Poko is best suited for older kids, tweens, and teens. The messages are solid, as are the voice performances, including Clancy Brown, J.K. Simmons, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Tres MacNeille. Especially entertaining is the narration by Maurice Lamarche. The animation is original and delightful, a Studio Ghibli trademark. Still, the raccoons' antics are repetitive. They play tricks; they celebrate; they mourn; they give up; they try again. It's understandable that the filmmakers wanted to fully develop the environmental issues, provide in-depth characters, and offer an informative look at both the real critters and the Japanese legends that are attached to them, but, although each element is successful, the sum of the captivating parts is not entirely so. And, though true to nature, the extensive animal deaths may be upsetting, particularly for younger kids.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the popularity of environmental stories. Do you think such stories make a real contribution to our attitude about nature and our planet? Did Pom Poko change any of your ideas or enrich your knowledge of wildlife habitats? What other environmental movies have inspired you?
Describe the differences between standard animation (from Disney, Pixar, and so on) and Japanese anime. Which style do you think is best suited to fairy tales? To adventure stories? To science fiction and fantasy?
Find out about the Japanese legend of the tanuki, shape-shifting raccoons. Create your own legendary animal character. What powers could that animal have? How might it protect itself from predators and trespassers?
- In theaters: July 16, 1994
- On DVD or streaming: August 16, 2005
- Cast: Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Clancy Brown, Tress MacNeille
- Director: Isao Takahata
- Studio: Studio Ghibli
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Topics: Science and Nature, Wild Animals
- Run time: 112 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: violence, scary images, and thematic elements
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