Isao Takahata is a class act. He's the other main soul behind Studio Ghibli, often overshadowed by its other founder, the masterful Hayao Miyazaki. For his part, Takahata makes smaller films than Miyazaki, ones that are more cultural and not nearly as exciting to the world at large. However, Pom Poko shows that Takahata is Miyazaki's rival in every sense...it's only logical that they would work together. I doubt that Takahata will ever become well-known here in the States--his most accessible work internationally is the incredible but intensely depressing Grave of the Fireflies--and that's a shame. But let's take a look at Pom Poko, for it shows how bright Takahata's star really shines.
Pom Poko follows a group of tanuki (which aren't actually raccoons per se, but a "raccoon dog" that really does exist in Japan and parts of Russia) whose native forests are being destroyed when Tokyo becomes too big for its land space in the late 1960s. The tanuki appear very animal-like at first, but it turns out that when they are by themselves, they stand on their hind legs and have a full society. The tanuki are fun-loving, friendly, and more than just a bit rash in their decision making, and they desperately want to save their land. At first, the different clans of tanuki fight each other to gain superiority (in a cackle-inducing ode to samurai epics), but they eventually realize they must band together to survive. In a hysterical twist, it turns out that the tanuki are shapeshifters that have the power to change their form at will, given enough practice. At first, under the direction of the hotheaded Gonta, they succeed in threatening the lives of those trying to destroy their land. But it becomes clear that the humans aren't going to be so easily swayed, and the clansfolk come up with all sorts of mischevious ways to try and rid themselves of the humans who encroach further and further on their mountain.
Pom Poko is, for at least the first hour, a joyous and extremely funny movie. The first hour or so of the movie was about the most entertaining thing I've seen in quite some time, as a matter of fact. During the second hour, things do turn a bit more serious, and the ending is melancholy and not just a bit sad. It's a well-told, well-written story that occasionally sags, but holds up remarkably well. Parents should be aware that, although it's a very cute film that children might enjoy, some bits of humor in the film are a little questionable for those who aren't teenagers. (The main joke has to do with certain parts of the tanuki anatomy used in defensive attacks--it's utterly hysterical, and I say this not liking lowbrow humor, but some might object.)
In comparison to Omoide Poroporo, Takahata's film directly before this that was riddled with Japanese cultural references, Pom Poko is much easier for a Western audience to follow. Nevertheless, many parts still make reference to Japanese traditions that the average Westerner might understand but not truly appreciate. In addition, the story is told from a narrated perspective--often, the tanuki tell us what events are going on and why they are important, but we don't experience them in quite the same way you normally do in a film. This is a little distracting, especially when you realize that there is no main character to follow throughout the movie. That being said, Pom Poko is full of life and energy, and is frankly more entertaining in its conservation message than parts of Miyazaki's own films like Nausicaa. Granted, their styles are so different that it's hard to compare, but Pom Poko holds its own. If you don't mind some references to Japanese culture and a little bit of overlength (it runs a bit long at 118 minutes), and just want a good story and a good laugh, check it out.
P.S. For those wondering about where Pom Poko comes from, it's both the calendar on which the tanuki calculate time and the sound a tanuki belly makes when beat on like a drum. Arguments have been made for spellings as Pom Poko and Pon Poko, but it's a minor argument to be sure. Either way, the 2005 Disney release goes with Pom Poko, so we've changed it to reflect this across the website.
Pom Poko -- violence, mild off-color humor -- A-