You usually know where you stand with a Disney film. In the case of Pom Poko, you’re wrong.
The Disney company noticed the great international success of a Japanese animation studio more than two decades ago – Studio Ghibli. More than that, they noticed that Ghibli was treading the same family-friendly ground that had built the Disney empire. My Neighbor Totoro had, in particular, become one of the world’s greatest successes as a children’s animated feature. The film, which followed the exploits of a pair of sisters who happen across a giant woodland spirit (the Totoro of the title) after moving to a farm in the countryside resonated with audiences and Totoro became a licensing dynamo.
Future releases cemented the idea that Studio Ghibli was gold. With most of the films coming from the direction and writing of studio founder Hayao Miyazaki, hits kept coming. Spirited Away, Laputa: Castle in the Sky, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Kiki’s Delivery Service, The Cat Returns, Princess Mononoke… some were geared toward younger children, some were more adventure-oriented and garnered PG and PG-13 ratings. Overwhelmingly they were filled with positive messages about life, environmental messages about the value of nature, or both.
Disney secured a deal: they would be the exclusive distributor of the Studio Ghibli properties in the U.S., and they would provide all of the English translation work as well. This resulted in high-profile actors being cast for voicing the Ghibli films, and gave Disney another line into children’s animation… their traditional films, the Pixar studios, and distribution of the dominant children’s anime works.
On the surface everything seemed fine… until Pom Poko. Contracted to release all of the Studio Ghibli work, Disney put together a two-disc set for the movie and recruited actors like Jonathan Taylor Thomas (at the time, fresh from Home Improvement) for the voice efforts.
Unfortunately for the viewing family, Pom Poko is far more tailored to Japanese audiences than most Ghibli films. The movie is presented as a narrated nature documentary… but the creatures being followed are a cross between traditional raccoon-dogs and the shapeshifting spirits of Japanese legend called tanuki. The movie is steeped in Japanese culture; this alone is not a problem, as it gives families a chance to explore some new myths, children’s songs and more.
It does have an unusual story structure for a children’s movie, though. The main characters, facing food shortages due to deforestation, are split between attacking the humans, attempting to cohabitate with them, or waiting for aid from experienced elders who can help them hone their natural powers of shapeshifting to scare the humans away. During the course of the movie all three courses are pursued. All three are complete failures. It’s not normal to have a movie teach children about futility.
And then there’s the other side of the coin: after getting to know many of the tanuki, the viewers are treated to images of them being run over by cars. It’s one thing to encounter this in a film marketed to adults like Watership Down; it’s another matter entirely to watch it in a Disney flick.
But by the time that the raccoon dogs start dying off (and many of them do, sometimes in fairly dramatic ways) the viewer will have already been stunned, and not because of the extended scene involving two drunk humans arguing about the old days.
It’ll be the testicles.
The cartoon creatures in this film are both male and female, and when they’re male, they’re visibly male. Not only are the testicles present in most scenes, genitalia prove to be particularly useful for transformation. Whether it’s a 999-year-old tanuki going insane and turning his testes into a boat to go sailing off in, a female tanuki turning her labia into a carpet, or attacking tanuki inflating their testicles into giant cannonballs as they launch themselves at police, the organs in this movie are pretty much impossible to miss.
I expect many parents never expected to have conversations about that after an animated Disney feature.
Question of the night: What’s your favorite Disney show or movie?