Poupelle Of Chimney Town

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Poupelle Of Chimney Town
"The landscape within which all this takes place is spectacular: a richly imagined, fully fledged fantasy world." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia

A strong contender for the finest animated film of 2021, Poupelle Of Chimney Town is a high concept fantasy film charting the adventures of young chimney sweep Lubicchi (Mana Ashida), a boy who, despite his fear of heights, strives to climb as high as he can in the hope of seeing the stars. This was his father’s dream and his father has been missing for a long time, perhaps a victim of Chimney Town’s secretive authoritarian government, which doesn’t like the concept of stars. Smoke has blotted out the sky for as long as anybody can remember and it suits them to keep their people believing that the city is the whole world. So far, Lubicchi has been too small to concerns them, but he’s reached the age when colleagues are starting to warn him that he needs to be more circumspect. Everything comes to a head when he meets a mysterious stranger.

Strangers, in fact, rarely take more mysterious form than this. Viewers are privy to the sight of something falling from the sky; we see it take form by assembling a body from pieces of garbage. As it happens to be Halloween, the townspeople are initially unconcerned by the sight of this creature ambling around in their midst, but when costumes start to be removed and people pull at his, panic ensues. Lubicchi’s decision to help him propels the pair into a spectacular adventure which will change their world forever.

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The landscape within which all this takes place is spectacular: a richly imagined, fully fledged fantasy world which is all the more enchanting for being seen from a child’s perspective. It’s a dense urban space full of details, with soaring towers lost in grimy clouds, houses and apartments, makeshift hovels, factories, warehouses, walkways, bridges, tunnels, a river, a beach beside an uncharted sea, and a variety of conveyer belts which shuttle goods and garbage around. Everything looks old, poorly cared for. There’s graffiti and dirt and some of the machinery seems on the brink of failure, but we see it being repaired, maintained, and the whole city locks together as if it too were a machine. Most of its people know their places and fill them comfortably. Lubicchi skitters around like a loose cog. His mother worries. He’s probably too young to be working on the chimneys but the men there have adopted him like a mascot, complete with stovepipe hat.

The effort put into all this is remarkable and it really pays off, speaking to the unconscious as much as the conscious mind, as some details are visible only for a few frames. The presence of the smoke allows for all sorts of tricks to be played with focus, adding depth and contributing to the sense of how huge everything is compared to our small hero. There’s plenty to satisfy an adult audience, but there are also some simpler animated elements, such as the cute bats who start tagging along after Lubicchi, which will appeal to children. Much of the dialogue seems to be aimed at children, especially the inspirational speeches towards the end. These are, sadly, overblown and twee, letting down the excellent work elsewhere.

One other factor disappoints, and that’s the use of a hideous stereotype of a scheming Arab for one of the story’s main villains. All arched eyebrows, pointy beard and twirling moustache, he sneers and guffaws his way through the film like something out a mid-20th Century racist comic strip. It’s really disappointing to see this kind of thing turning up in the 21st Century, and whilst it’s likely to be meaningless to most younger viewers, it’s the kind of imagery that accumulates in the mind when glimpsed in multiple places, so parents may well feel uncomfortable about it. One wonders what the creative team were thinking, including something so jarring in an otherwise sweet-natured fable.

For those who feel able to stick with the film despite this, there’s a good deal of action and adventure, with lessons to be learned along the way about friendship, solidarity and the importance of facing one’s fears. Poupelle is a complicated and likeable character with a slightly-too-obvious secret. Lubicchi is full of heart. Musical moments are a bit hit and miss and the ending is too drawn out, but the animation really is so dazzling that it easily makes up for these minor problems. One hopes for a fresh edit some time in the future which might cut out the problematic material and let it shine, uninterrupted, as it deserves to.

Reviewed on: 28 Dec 2021
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One Halloween night, a deliveryman accidentally drops the heart he is supposed to deliver. He cannot find the heart in the smoke and gives up. The heart continues to beat where it fell in the town of chimneys.

Director: Yuusuke Hirota

Writer: Akihiro Nishino

Starring: Masataka Kubota, Mana Ashida, Shingo Fujimori

Year: 2020

Runtime: 100 minutes

Country: Japan

Festivals:

Fantasia 2021

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