Steampunk settings are always interesting, but Poupelle of Chimney Town gives the idea a unique twist. The technology is antiquated, but instead of Victorian England, the town itself feels more like something out of a dystopian future tale such as Ghost in the Shell. Buildings are stacked haphazardly on top of one another, with smokestacks too numerous to count blotting out the sky with their exhaust. This gives Chimney Town a muted palette – all the better to contrast with the bold explosions of color the movie bursts into in its dramatic moments.
The earliest example happens when Poupelle emerges into the streets and joins a Halloween parade, which is a big impromptu musical number that doesn’t exactly go with the rest of the movie, but at least it’s entertaining! The moment that really sells the color palette switches, however, is when Lubicchi and Poupelle accidentally get sent to the garbage incinerator soon afterwards. The entire processing plant lights up with vibrant, psychedelic hues and the machinery moves in nigh-impossible ways to facilitate a high-speed escape from certain doom. It’s visually spectacular, emotionally captivating, and gives this film an identity of its own. It also makes you wonder… if they do get to see the night sky, will it be as wondrously drenched in color as these segments have been?
Besides the setting, Poupelle of Chimney Town draws you in with its instantly lovable characters. Lubicchi himself is an adorable kid who works hard to support his disabled mother and will do anything to prove his late father’s theory that stars really do exist, but he’s got some realistic flaws as well. He gets frustrated with Poupelle when their plans don’t go well, his confidence is mostly a façade, and he’s even a bit of a smartass to some of the wackier characters. Antonio Raul Corbo, a 12-year-old actor in his first anime role (you may know him from Brooklyn Nine-Nine), does a fantastic job infusing Lubicchi with wide-eyed determination and a slight waver that betrays how difficult this journey is for the young chimney sweep.
There’s also the charmingly naïve Poupelle, who acts like a slightly more unhinged version of Baymax from Big Hero 6; Scooper, a beetle-like man who nerds out over explosives, talks a mile a minute, and distracts bad guys with fun facts about ants; and even fun minor characters like a doctor who only speaks in old man wheezes.
The animation and voice acting are superb here. The complex facial expressions (especially on Poupelle, who doesn’t exactly have a normal face) and hand-painted textures make each character feel like a real person, and the dialogue flows so naturally – even in English – that you almost forget it’s an animated movie. Everyone did their best work to make this film as polished as possible!
All of that said, there are a few places where this film falters somewhat, and most of them have to do with plot details and tonal issues. The entire justification for Chimney Town’s totalitarian government is pretty flimsy if you think about it for more than a few minutes, and the villains don’t have much in the way of concrete motivation. This doesn’t bother us too much, though. For one, it’s a kid’s movie, so some plot contrivances can be excused; and for two, the reason why the government is oppressive isn’t anywhere near as important as the impact it has on the characters. Lubicchi’s dream endangers himself and his loved ones, many of whom want to help him, but decide to toe the line instead of risking the consequences. And there definitely are consequences.
The other main issue is that Poupelle of Chimney Town wants to be a slapstick comedy sometimes, but that doesn’t tend to gel with its darker themes. For the first 30 minutes of the film (which include the aforementioned Halloween dance number and incinerator escape), it feels almost like watching a Looney Tunes sketch. This tone drops off later on, only to come back near the end for a few gags in the finale – like Scooper avoiding soldiers by becoming a human whack-a-mole. Do these off-the-wall moments take away from the dramatic storyline of a little boy daring to fight back against a 1984-esque dystopian society? We… honestly can’t decide, but it gave us pause nonetheless. Our advice is to not think about it too much and enjoy the film for what it is.