Studio 4°C is by far my favorite animation studio, sadly their release schedule can be quite erratic. Sometimes years go by without a single feature film released, then there are years we see a solid mix of anthologies and features. I'm always happy to watch a new film of theirs, Yusuke Hirota's Poupelle of Chimney Town [Eiga Entotsumachi no Puperu] was no exception. Though targeted at a younger audience, there is so much creativity on display here that it hardly matters. Fans of animation (not just anime) are sure to find plenty to love here.
Koji Morimoto is one of the most gifted animators alive, so it's no surprise that the animation studio he founded is prone to deliver exceptional work. Studio 4°C doesn't have a definite signature, it favors experimentation and loves to give freedom to their animators, but their particular brand of dense and elaborate urban fantasy can't really be found anywhere else. Think Morimoto's Noiseman Sound Insect or Michael Arias' [url=/blog/tekon-kinkurito-review-michael-arias]Tekkonkintreet[/url], the main difference here is that Poupelle is aimed at a slightly younger audience.
The story feels like a spin on a traditional fairy tale, or a mix of familiar fairy tale tropes. It revolves around a magical ragtag creature trying to find its way in a strange world, looking for friendship and acceptance. The world of Poupelle too has lessons for its audience, as its bustling town is wrapped in darkness, forever engulfed by the smoke coming from its many chimneys. There's quite a lot to work through, and the film probably could've used a little extra time to unwrap all of its secrets, while still have enough room to explore and ogle at all the magic that is hidden inside this wondrous universe.
Lubicchi lost his father at a young age. His dad believed there was an expansive world worth exploring outside the town borders, but he was scoffed at by the other villagers. Lubicchi continues his dad's dream of finding out what lies behind the thick smog. He gets some unexpected help from Poupelle, a creature who came to be when a special crystal fell out of the sky and brought him to life. Poupelle is made up out of garbage, people don't want anything to do with him except for Lubicchi. The two become friends and start their journey to free the two from its smokey prison.
When Morimoto released Noiseman Sound Insect back in '97, he set some kind of impossible benchmark for cel shaded animation. Studio 4°C has built on and improved that particular look throughout the years, in Poupelle of Chimney Town we find another upgraded take that raises the bar yet again. It's difficult to properly do it justice without seeing it in motion, but there's an explosion of color and detail that is as far removed from that shiny, fake CG look as you could hope. There's somewhat of a disconnect between what the eyes see and what the brain knows to be computer-generated, and it's absolutely glorious. The art style is superb, the designs are lush and creative, and the animation quality is best in class. It should come as no surprise, but Studio 4°C delivers.
If the film has a weakness, it is the overly jolly and often J-Pop based soundtrack. Poupelle of Chimney Town has a couple of those "Japanese trailer songs" usually reserved for the credits (where they can be safely ignored) which it put bang in the middle of the film. I'm pretty certain it increases the film's appeal with its target audience, personally I found it rather distracting, as they didn't sit well with the broader atmosphere. At least the original dub is pretty great, sporting some very distinctive and memorable voice work. As always, highly preferable to whatever other dub options are found on a disc/streaming services, though people having trouble reading subs might want to think twice, considering the visual prowess on display.
Once the characters are introduced, the setting is clear and the goal is obvious, the film settles down and goes through rather predictable narrative motions. It's a bit disappointing for those expecting a film geared at a more mature audience, but I don't think Poupelle ever gave the impression it was anything but a film for younger children. It never feels like the story was deliberately being dumbed down or simplified, it's just not that challenging or surprising. Narratively that is, as the visual creativity remains exceptionally high throughout and should be more than enough to keep animation fans entertained.
Studio 4°C is a production house worth championing. They never take the easy route, they never settle for quick cash-ins or bland sequels. Instead, they offer young talent a platform to showcase their creativity. Poupelle of Chimney Town is one of the most visually impressive films I've ever watched, a joyful and creative fantastical adventure that should be able to capture the imagination of all who put in the effort. I'm not really sure why the film hasn't received more attention, as it is easily available for all to see, so there's really no excuse to skip this one.