You have to look before you know.
It’s Halloween night and a bright light has penetrated through the dark smoky clouds above Chimney Town. The red crystal in the shape of a heart tears through everything in its path en route to the garbage dump, pausing just above the ground’s surface to pull the long-since discarded objects towards it like a magnet. When all is said and done, a figure emerges: pointed hat, umbrella handle nose, cage body, and spring arms. The children dancing and singing in the street for candy invite him into their group and he does better than them all to win best “costume” amongst the townsfolk. It’s only when they all remove their masks that they realize he isn’t a child. He’s an unknown. A monster. So, they call the Inquisitors.
The tone of director Yusuke Hirota and writer Akihiro Nishino‘s (adapted from his own book) Eiga Entotsumachi no Puperu [Poupelle of Chimney Town] therefore turns on a dime from eccentric steampunk-ish town to oppressive dystopia. It’s not surprising since the depiction of this “garbageman’s” creation moved from miracle fantasy to howling nightmare just as fast. But he isn’t a villain. He gives his candy to a child with none. He begs the others to get to know him better and grows afraid himself once everyone’s fear of “the other” puts him on the run. If not for a young chimney sweep named Lubicchi (Antonio Raul Corbo) hearing his screams from the back of a garbage truck heading towards an incinerator, this stranger would have died without a name.
Lubicchi calls him Poupelle (Tony Hale) after the character in one of his father Bruno’s (Stephen Root) stories. In it, this adventurer seeks to go where no citizen of Chimney Town has ever been: the outside world. Bruno dreams of more. He believes there are stars above the smoke-filled skies forever replenished by the thousands of smokestacks keeping many townsfolk employed—even if no one really knows what a “star” is. In a place where ignorance is anonymity, Bruno is known by everyone as a crackpot liar. Those in charge (lame duck king, malicious advisor, and the Inquisitors’ secret police) label him a heretic. Anyone who dares to remind the public that they’ve never been beyond the clouds encasing them on all sides must be silenced.
So, while the film is first and foremost about Lubicchi having someone to call his friend (a role that’s only ever been filled by his father), it also proves a rather incisive critique on capitalism, misinformation, and totalitarianism. A lot of those big concepts arrive from a long-awaited, exposition-packed moment courtesy of a very talkative miner named Scoop (Hasan Minhaj), though, so it’s both there for adults to delve deeper and easy to gloss over for kids invested solely in whether Lubicchi and Poupelle succeed in their quest to open their neighbors’ eyes before they become silenced themselves. I do love the utopian idea of spoiling money (spend it now because hoarding guarantees bankruptcy), but I love the reality that great ideas can often be corrupted even more.
Most dystopias are built on an illusion of peace, after all. Somewhere along the way, however, those in charge begin to exploit the system to stay in power. In this case, that means keeping them all blind to a truth so long forgotten that the mere utterance of it conjures ridicule. Stars? How can you be so silly? And if you keep talking about such impossibilities, your chances of being arrested (or worse) only amplify to the point where no one will dare protect you. That includes “monsters” like Poupelle. To be foreign in this town means you may know something those in charge don’t want known. He becomes enemy number one the second he’s discovered. He’s dead before he can even live if Lubicchi doesn’t hide him.
The stakes are heavy as a result. Despite skewing younger with its humor and sentimentality (Poupelle arrives out of nowhere shortly after Lubicchi’s father leaves), there are a lot of Young Adult fiction similarities from atmosphere to narrative. Traitors reveal themselves underneath the Inquisitors’ masks. The many’s fear of the few reaches its breaking point to choose a side rather than ignore the choice. And their disenfranchisement and indoctrination begin to crack thanks to one young boy who has the courage in himself and pride for his father to look the enemy in the eye and refuse to relent. Poupelle amplifies that strength. His kind-hearted “monster” reveals that magic is possible and no one knows what’s true unless someone sees that it is or isn’t. Words conversely deceive.
Beyond the heady messaging, however, is also a fun adventure. The character design is delightful (Lubicchi’s two top teeth hang over his lip like a vampire and Poupelle’s lo-fi Johnny-Five aesthetic endears), the action exciting (the opening rescue/escape plays like a videogame with side-scrolling viewpoints and Donkey Kong Country minecart peril), and the heart ever present. The relationship between Lubicchi and Poupelle isn’t without hiccups (misunderstandings, mostly), but their mutual drive to help and love each other never wavers. They do whatever they can to assist with protection even when they may not be seeing eye to eye. Over-exuberance sometimes gets the best of them, but their intent is always pure because their faith in the unknown drives them forward. When everyone buries their heads, they stand tall.
courtesy of Eleven Arts