Poupelle of Chimney Town is one of the best, most wondrous animated films I've seen in years. This Japanese import hooked me from the opening three minutes and drew me in further the longer it went on. A combination of traditional hand-drawn animation and CGI, it starts off sweet and silly, then gradually reveals great emotional depth. The movie is suitable for kids ten and up, although you don't need to have a child with you to appreciate what an extraordinary work this is.
Chimney Town is, as its name suggests, a city comprised of massive chimneys. So much smoke is spewed into the sky that the residents have no clue if there's a world outside. They can't even see the sky. The town's leadership has a totalitarian vibe, dispatching an army of masked soldiers to make sure nobody ever does anything that's unsanctioned. In short, it's a depressing place.
Lubicchi (voiced by Antonio Raul Corbo in the English-dubbed version) is a young chimney sweep who, ironically, is terrified of heights. He mourns the loss of his beloved father on a daily basis. One Halloween, the boy meets a “garbage man” – a being made of trash, with an umbrella handle for a nose. They become friends, and Lubicchi dubs his new buddy “Poupelle.” (Tony Hale does outstanding voice work as the character.) Early scenes show their friendship developing as they try to prevent the town's rulers from finding out about this mysterious newcomer. Eventually, though, the two hatch a scheme to see if there really are stars in the sky, as Lubbichi's father long claimed.
I'm leaving out a fair amount of story points to avoid giving anything away. Poupelle of Chimney Town has many poignant layers to it. The film is about friendship, but also grief, isolation, the oppressiveness of a tyrannical government, and finding hope when none seems available. That it ties all these disparate elements together smoothly is a testament to its quality. As the plot progresses, revelations are made that deepen the themes and give us new perspectives on what we're seeing. Even though it's a fantasy, set in a non-existent place and following a hero who could not exist in real life, the ideas at its core could not be more identifiable.
Adding significantly to the pleasure is the physical style of the picture. This is one of those movies where you could randomly pause on any given shot and it would be gorgeous to look at. Chimney Town is rendered in great detail. Those massive smoke-emitting towers, seemingly endless in number, create an eerie atmosphere. But there are real colors at ground level – suggestions of optimism against this forbidding background. An opening Halloween-inspired musical number has Lubbichi and friends in bright costumes that effectively contrast the general drabness of their town. There's also a stunning sequence in which Lubbichi and Poupelle sit atop one of the tallest chimneys; we can see the town is far more beautiful when looking down than when looking up.
Eye-popping imagery is enough to make Poupelle of Chimney Town stand out from the pack, yet it's the way that imagery feeds into the story – and vice versa – that marks it as an exceptional animated feature. The bond that forms between Lubbichi and Poupelle touches your heart, as does the manner in which this friendship reveals a healing quality. Some scenes are funny, others exciting, still others tender. All of it blends into something magical to watch. The movie has genuine soul, and I won't soon forget how uplifted it made me feel.
out of four
Poupelle of Chimney Town is rated PG for violence, some action, and thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.