In recent decades Japan has seemed the last bastion of traditional animation, continuing to release hand-drawn anime features while the USA and other countries have transitioned almost entirely to computer-generated images. Even that is now shifting, however, with a growing number of anime productions working in CGI while attempting to retain the same popular aesthetic that has dominated the medium for the last 70 years or so.
It has to date been a largely awkward transition, with the mechanical motions of CGI struggling to replace the more intuitive fluidity that comes from animating by hand. It arguably took the American animation industry until 2010 to adequately replicate a hand-drawn style in CGI, with Disney’s release of Tangled. In Yusuke Hirota’s Poupelle of Chimney Town, a Studio 4°C production, it feels like anime finally has its equivalent. It is a beautifully composed, charming, and immensely colourful picture. Released in Japan at the tail end of 2020, it is finally receiving a theatrical release in the USA – and one hopes a release in Australia soon.
Lubicchi (Antonio Raul Corbo) is a young boy who works cleaning the titular chimneys of the heavily polluted Chimney Town, which exists under the tight control of the fearsome inquisitors. He dreams of one day seeing the stars, something his father (Stephen Root) always assured him existed beyond the thick clouds of smoke that surrounded the city. One day Lubicchi rescues a man made of garbage from the furnaces, and decides to befriend him – naming him Poupelle Halloween (Tony Hale). The film has been adapted by Akihiro Nishino from his own picture book. It boasts a marvellous aesthetic: richly detailed, warm, and lively.
The character designs are translated to the screen in a stunning fashion. The film takes advantage of how easily replicated a CGI character can be by detailing them with intricate fine lines of the sort often seen in top-grade manga by the likes of Otomo or Urasawa. The colours appear to have been scanned in from physical paint-work, and wrapped around the CGI shapes. It all blends together beautifully: Poupelle gains the style and appearance of hand-drawn art, but keeps the dimensions and depth of field of digital.
Poupelle himself is an extraordinary creation, assembled from an umbrella and bucket, springs, cables, and all manner of refuse and junk. Tony Hale provides his voice in the English language version, and presents a remarkable blend of curiosity and awkward politeness. Having already impressed enormously with his voice work as Forky in Toy Story 4, Hale clearly has a gift for this kind of acting. Corbo and Root also provide strong, emotive work. There used to be a time when anime enthusiasts in the English-speaking world preferred Japanese audio to the point of fetishisation, while ridiculing anyone who dared listen to anything different. Thankfully we are well beyond that stage as anime has shifted into the mainstream. It is great that the American release at least has been gifted with such a strong audio adaptation, as this is the sort of family entertainment that deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible.
Poupelle comes packed with wonderful characters, smart ideas – degradable currency that rots if you don’t spend it is a particular highlight, strong design and a vivid use of colour. The recent years of COVID-19 and border closures have taken their toll on most of us. Movies like this are a charming antidote. This is a joyful, must-see confection.