“Poupelle of Chimney Town” begins where “Toy Story 3” ends, with a daring escape from a dangerous garbage incinerator. You see, it’s not always easy to tell the trash from the treasure in Chimney Town, a richly imagined steampunk metropolis where smokestacks crowd the skyline, belching so much thick black haze into the air that an entire generation of soot-covered townspeople has ceased to believe in the stars. The lone exception, a bobble-headed boy named Lubicchi (Antonio Raul Corbo), is always looking up, determined to prove to everyone that there’s something beyond all that “smoky smoke.”
To prove his theory, this pint-sized Galileo’s gonna need help, and he finds it in the form of an unlikely friend, magically brought to life one night from the local landfill — a literal “garbage man” he decides to call Poupelle. This stinky scarecrow-looking character (whose name, through no coincidence, sounds an awful lot like “poubelle,” the French word for “trash can”) might not seem like the most appealing of companions, what with his broken umbrella hat, rust-bucket jaw and dangling rubber hoses for hair. But leave it to director Yusuke Hirota and the team at Studio 4°C (“Tekkonkinkreet”) — plus the charms of voice actor Tony Hale, who also played the spork in “Toy Story 4” — to turn this junk-monster reject into one of the year’s most endearing animated characters.
Adapted from a popular picture book by Japanese illustrator Akihiro Nishino, “Poupelle of Chimney Town” is an animated buddy movie, a high-energy believe-in-yourself adventure and a fantastical social fable all rolled into one. Lubicchi is cute, with his signature top hat, bowtie and cloak (plus a pair of widely spaced front teeth that suggest a vampire’s understudy), while Poupelle fools everybody when he magically appears one Halloween, his cobbled-together appearance easily mistaken for a costume at first.
The project doesn’t look like Studio 4°C’s other productions (“Children of the Sea,” “Fortune Favors Lady Nikuko”) in that it applies a faux line-traced finish to three-dimensional digital rigs: CGI disguised as traditional anime. The result can be a little distracting at times. Individual frames can be quite beautiful, but our brains aren’t fooled into believing that what we’re seeing was sketched by hand. Characters move like puppets, as if controlled by invisible strings, and the vivid watercolor texture looks like some kind of filter. Still, the approach frees up the film’s entire way of framing, allowing the virtual camera to swoop and spin 360 degrees around the action.
And there’s a lot more action than you might think. Ever since his father’s disappearance, Lubicchi has been a little short on friends (bullies are easier to come by), but as soon as he pairs up with Poupelle, they’re constantly getting into trouble together. Like falling down a garbage incinerator chute, or zooming along a rickety roller coaster track, à la mine cart scene from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (or, for today’s kids, like the CGI-liberated one in “Journey to the Center of the Earth”). Animation frees such adrenaline-rush sequences from gravity, allowing endless loop-de-loops and thrilling tricks no physical camera could manage.
Watching such sequences made me wish I were 10 years old — or rather, that such a movie had been available to me when I was. I would’ve loved “Poupelle” at that age, and though it all feels a little too antic for adult tastes (and too long by nearly half an hour), the English-language version released wide in the U.S. this week by Eleven Arts is a gift to American kids. “Poupelle” tells the story of a relatable loner with an unpopular point of view who insists on pursuing the truth when everyone around him accepts the big lie — in this case, that there’s nothing beyond Chimney Town. “Don’t stand out,” Poupelle’s mother Lola (Misty Lee) warns. Luckily for this story’s purposes, Lubicchi doesn’t listen.
The screenplay (which Nishino adapted himself, translated into English by John Sutherland) can be a bit heavy-handed at times, but the voice cast is terrific. It helps that Lubicchi is performed by an actual kid, and Stephen Root is great as his missing dad, Bruno, who makes regular appearances in nostalgia-tinged flashbacks (he’s drawn all big and brawny, like the hunks seen in that corner of manga known as “bara”). Lubicchi and Poupelle meet a motormouth miner along the way, and comedian Hasan Minhaj offers a hint of how amusing this character, “Scoop,” must have been in the original Japanese.
No doubt, a few things got lost in translation. Two-thirds of the way in, the film serves up a complicated economics lesson about a form of money “that rots over time,” so as to explain the vast conspiracy that has driven Chimney Town into isolation. It’s an original idea shoehorned into a movie that works better in adventure mode, stirred to life by Youki Kojima and Yuta Bandoh’s robust orchestral score. As rich as the visuals can be at times, the music has it beat: Chimney Town may be a small-minded, smoke-choked industrial prison state for most, but to an optimistic loner like Lubicchi, it sounds like a symphony and glitters with possibility.