Must... resist...jokes about palms and watching Pinocchio's nose grow. Fortunately, Judge Joel Pearce is here to distract us with a fine review of a fine anime film.
"It's no good being a puppet" -Palme
The rise of computers and artificial intelligence has changed the way we view certain classic stories. For example, Pinocchio's quest to become real resonates with our own quest to create a true replication of ourselves. A Tree of Palme is yet another sci-fi adaptation of "Pinocchio," but it works far better than that other robotic Pinocchio movie. This disc is one of ADV's best efforts yet, and has earned a spot on the shelves of anime collectors.
Facts of the Case
In a strange world with three planes of life, a young robot named Palme awakens and is met by a blue warrior from under the earth. The warrior gives Palme the quest of taking a precious egg deep below the earth. When he gets there, the great tree named Soma will use the egg to restore the order of the underworld clans. At first, Palme stumbles along on his quest, but he becomes more enthusiastic as he gains new companions. Shatta, a young underworld warrior, comes to his aid, as well as two young rascals, Mu and Pu. His first glimpse of his own humanity comes when he meets Popo, a young girl who reminds him of the daughter of his creator.
When he learns that Soma may be able to make him human, Palme becomes obsessed with his quest, to the point that he is willing to sacrifice anything to reach his own goal. When Palme learns that the egg he carries may be something entirely different than what he was told, his friends urge him to accept what he is and give up on his journey.
Some films are hard to describe, and A Tree of Palme is among them. Although it is based on "Pinocchio" and includes some of the same plot points and visual elements, the spirit of the film is completely different. It is as though Dickens had adapted "Pinocchio," which was then animated by a crew who was obsessed with Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and the writings of Freud. Small snippets of "Pinocchio" are present, but they are difficult to see among the colorful madness that surrounds them. The blue fairy is present, but she is a violent blue warrior from the underworld. When Palme reaches the city, donkey ears can be seen on some of the strange creatures that befriend him, and others look suspiciously like characters from the classic Disney film. These moments pop out all through the film, and I noticed even more on a second viewing.
Many elements from the original are missing, though. Palme does have a cute animal companion, but the speechless Baron is no voice of wisdom. Instead, Palme must discover his own path and his own destiny in his quest for humanity. Palme doesn't originally seek to become human; it is only when he becomes attached to human characters that he wishes to become human. The best moments in the film come as Palme searches for this humanity, learning in the meantime about life and death. His experimentation ends in tragedy; the moment that Palme realizes what he has done and lies to his friends is the most effective scene in the film. With humanity comes the ability to feel, but also to act selfishly and do terrible damage in the world. As Palme becomes more like a human, it is unclear if he'll be able to become real, but also whether or not he'll be a good boy if it happens. Is Palme willing to sacrifice to gain his humanity? His decisions clarify the reasons why Palme wants to become human: Not because it's better in some aesthetic or essential way, but because he realizes that he will always be an outsider in the culture. Were he a real boy, he'd be treated the same as everyone else. This "Pinocchio" dwells in a large, complex world of politics and power.
This sci-fi anime adaptation of "Pinocchio" is odd to watch. In some ways, it very much remains a children's story, with young, cute characters; a clear separation between the world of children and adults; and a young, innocent protagonist on a mission he doesn't fully understand. It retains the look and plot of a fairy tale. At the same time, A Tree of Palme features extremely grim and grisly violence. The death of the old man is graphic, and many other characters are killed with plenty of blood. Adults are frightening, abusive in a way that never would have flown in a classic Disney film. Many of the early Disney animation titles had dark undertones that flowed beneath the surface, but A Tree of Palme uproots them, exposing them on the surface.
Writer/director Takashi Nakamura has created a unique, believable alternate world. The design is complex, involving three levels that can support life. This geography never takes center stage, but provides a solid backdrop for the story. The ecological theme of man's involvement with nature and responsibility to maintain the world is similar to other anime stories. That said, the ecological message is not the main point here, and stays in the background where it belongs. A Tree of Palme is primarily about human nature and the responsibility that comes with sentience. It is overly philosophical and ambiguous at times, like so many anime films, but it never becomes too obscure. A Tree of Palme provides an extremely visceral experience; the horror of death and the violence against Popo hit home hard, and aren't overexplained in the dialogue.
A Tree of Palme is a technical masterpiece. As with almost all contemporary anime, certain effects are rendered in CGI. Yet there is surprisingly little CGI overall, which gives the film an organic, classic look. It was in development and production for over seven years, and the effort has paid off through detailed characters and subtleties in the animation and backdrops. The characters journey all over the world, but we rarely see the same places from the same angles twice. A Tree of Palme is among the most cinematic examples of anime I have ever seen, and it is obvious that few corners were cut to bring this world to life.
The disc does a fine job of showcasing the excellent animation. The anamorphic transfer has excellent detail and black levels, and relatively few compression artifacts. A few darker scenes expose some shimmering, but only under a close eye on a high-quality display. I didn't notice print damage, animation artifacts, or jaggies. The sound mix is superb as well. The surrounds and LFE are put to excellent use. Both the original language track and the dub feature clear dialogue. This is one of the better dubs that ADV has released, although the original language track is the stronger of the two.
The main extra is a production featurette that covers a lot of topics at breakneck speed. It runs just under 20 minutes, and summarizes the development of the film. The art gallery on this disc goes way beyond the call of duty. In addition to the requisite character sketches, there are animatics that were used to point the animators in the right direction. The art is truly impressive, and it's actually worth checking out. It always amazes me how much work goes into animation, especially an epic film like this. The next extra is storyboards, which play over the soundtrack from the finished film. The featurette and art don't make this a fully stocked special edition, but this is one of the better efforts from ADV. A decent booklet featuring interviews with the director is a worthwhile read.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although fascinating, A Tree of Palme is somewhat flawed. It runs too long and tries to handle too many story lines, which makes it confusing in places. Fans of anime know this isn't a unique problem, but you should be aware of it before jumping into this DVD.
A Tree of Palme delivers what A.I. could not. It's not perfect, but it successfully transplants "Pinocchio" into a world where its ideas can flourish; it taps into concerns we have about technology and our relationship with the natural world. It's definitely not family fare, but adults who enjoy dark science fiction and classic Disney movies will have a wonderful time exploring this unique film.
This court refuses to stand in the way of Palme's quest for humanity. Not guilty.
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