Review: ‘Poupelle Of Chimney Town’ is a sweet adventure that loses something in translation

The opening moments of the latest movie from Japan’s Studio 4°C are quite the thing: from the depths of space, a streaking red heart burns through the cosmos and buries itself into a very familiar planet. Landing directly in a landfill dump, it draws scraps of metal and canvas towards itself, gradually forming into something that starts to resemble a man. This striking setup beautifully sets the scene for a charming story of friendship and loss, with only a few hiccups along the way.

The Garbage Man finds his way to Lubicchi, a young boy throwing himself into his work as a chimney sweep to quieten his grief over his deceased father. And there’s a good reason why chimney sweeping is such an important job; the city in which Lubicchi, his mother and the cast of distinct characters live is so polluted from the thousands of industrial chimneys spewing out endless smoke that the citizens have never seen the sky. Even stars are reduced to the silly fantasies of children’s books. It soon becomes apparent that the city is controlled by a seemingly religious autocracy (dissidents are referred to as “heretics”), who react to the rumours of a wandering man made of garbage with predictable suspicion. The bulk of the story centres on the relationship between Louie and Poupelle as they learn what it takes to be friends in the face of growing danger.

Poupelle of Chimneytown

It’s a story that’s we’ve seen many times before, but what sets ‘Poupelle Of Chimney Town‘ apart is the beautiful, detailed art style of the animation. It doesn’t have the sweeping pastels of, say, Ghibi’s ‘Spirited Away‘ or ‘Princess Mononoke‘, instead learning into a highly characterised style that would look perfectly at home in the ‘Professor Layton‘ or ‘Dragon Quest‘ game series. Characters are chunky and distinct; Poupelle himself constantly has strands hanging down from his head and body which sway as he moves. The city itself is layer upon layer of brown and grey industrial structures, with the walkways and public travel vehicles woven in between the architecture. The movie is adapted from a famous Japanese picture book by Akihiro Nishino, and the depth of the detail is frequently impressive.

The delivery of the script is slightly less consistent, sometimes tripping over itself as the English cast try to speak with the Japanese timings. Multiple lines can overlap, occasionally something is lost in a conversation, and there’s even a prolonged sequence that just doesn’t work in English at all. The fantastic Tony Hale also lowers his voice sometimes in an attempt to voice Poupelle’s musings, but they too can often get lost in the noise. For those familiar with English-dubbed Japanese films, none of this will be surprising; it’s one of many reasons why so many stick religiously to Japanese audio with subtitles. However, if you find yourself with no other option (as in this case), then the English audio is perfectly useable. You’ll just hear a few moments where it stumbles a little.

These little bumps don’t really matter in the end, though, as it all comes together in a blistering finale that does what these films do best and lets every character use what they have learnt in their arc. The truth is just one of the things that is revealed, and there may be more than a few sniffs from whoever’s watching it with you. As the credits roll, you’re left with a complete, finished tale that leaves you just a little warmer, and that’s the best thing a film could give you at the moment.

Rating: 3/5

Poupelle Of Chimney Town‘ is currently showing in selected theatres.