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Tree of Palme, A
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by Jay Seaver

"A sort of anime Pinocchio. And Cinderella. And even stranger stuff."
3 stars

It's hard to look at Takashi Nakamura's A Tree of Palme and not think "Pinocchio". The central character, after all, is a wooden boy, on a quest which he hopes will culminate in becoming human. Certain sights seen along the way seem obviously lifted from that story (or at least Walt Disney's version of it), as well. But A Tree of Palme is its own animal, an intriguing science-fictional take on the concept.

The movie opens on a desert, with a warrior by the name of Koram fighting her way through a pack of pursuers. We also get our first view of Palme, dangling inert from a tree. Carved from a rare variety of wood that is said to store the memories of a civilization, he was crafted to be a companion to a terminally ill woman, Xian, and he just shut down after she passed on, only intermittently springing back to life over the ensuing decades. Koram bears a resemblance to Xian, which is enough to motivate Palme to complete her journey after she entrusts an incredible artifact/energy source to him.

Also looking somewhat like Xian is a young girl named Popo, who is constantly belittled by her vain mother, a one-time actress now making a living as a trader. She and Palme arrive in the same city at the same time. Palme falls in with a group of orphans with animal tails and ears who pick pockets for a local Fagin-type; one of the older members of the gang has a connection to Koram, and the group winds up on Popo's mother's ship. They will eventually find out, though, that returning this energy source to the tree from which it came could have apocalyptic consequences.

A Tree of Palme is gigantic for an animated movie - it clocks in at two hours and fifteen minutes, and as near as I can tell, it's almost entirely hand-drawn. That's a massive undertaking, almost unheard-of in America (and it can't be that common in Japan, either). Though there are a lot of segments where the animators are able to save somewhat by having the environment be a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but the city is incredibly busy. Before becoming a director in his own right, Nakamura has previously worked on movies such as Nausicaa and Akira, and the finale owes more than a little to Akira. It's the sort of sequence that hand-drawn animation still does better than CGI - characters and objects that have a rapidly changing model.

Like many sci-fi animes, A Tree of Palme creates its world out of whole cloth and then challenges the audience to keep up. It's something I always have mixed feelings about. On the one hand, it generally means the world feels lived in, not arbitrary; on the other, it often means the audience has to alternate between "confused" and "smothered with exposition". A Tree of Palme mostly manages to navigate between those extremes, but not always. It has a big exposition dump in the center that redefines the situation, but not as clearly as it could. I can't be the only one thinking "come on, can't I have five consecutive minutes where I'm on top of what's going on?"

As confusing at the plot can be, the characterization is interesting. In many ways, Popo is our perspective character despite not appearing until at least a half hour into the movie. She's the one whose problems we can understand and easily sympathize with, a child who initially has a difficult time comprehending that she can be wanted and have it not be creepy, since she certainly never got that from her mother. Showing bravery and asserting independence is difficult for her, even with encouragement from Palme and his fellow travelers.

The reason for that is that, well, Palme can be creepy. Not just the wooden body he tries to cover up, or the peculiar power he's been imbued with, but there's darkness to his personality beyond being childishly self-centered like Pinocchio. He was created with the purpose of being Xian's companion, and the way that programming still persists - the long periods of dormancy, the mistaking other people for Xian - makes him rather unstable. His obsession in the latter half of the movie threatens to transform him from the movie's hero to its villain. He has a friendly, child-like personality, but it's also missing some of the basic knowledge and instincts that even a child has. From a science-fictional standpoint, he's one of the best examples of the robot/alien character that, despite being similar, is not like us at a fundamental level.

So, be careful about getting this one for your kids. It's a Pinocchio story, true, but a complicated one which is at times peculiar and surreal. Even teens and adults who aren't particular fans of the anime form or science fiction may find it kind of off-putting. Still, give it credit for ambition - even if it doesn't quite live up to those ambitions, A Tree of Palme is still impressive for making it halfway.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=11598&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/10/05 13:24:46
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