A Tree of Palme

Writing a lot of graduate-level papers and reading some dissertations recently has made me realize that organization is everything. There are some folks who can't put any content into their work because they actually don't know anything. There are others who have a great deal to say...so much, in fact, that their thoughts are strewn across their pages haphazardly, creating a minefield of truth that is nevertheless impossible to navigate. Had they organized what they wanted to do well, perhaps their work would have a greater impact. In the same manner, without real focus, A Tree Of Palme is a heady, disjointed mess. A glorious, beautiful mess, to be certain, but a mess it is. This recent feature-length film is a wonder to behold at times with some truly original imagery. Artists will want to see it. But Palme is jam-packed with so much material that none of it sinks in, especially not at the plodding pace the first hour takes.

Palme is Pinocchio. True or false? He is made of wood, and yet he is alive. How is this possible? We really don't know. There are no blue fairies or magical nymphs that grant him locomotion as in other tales of the long-nosed boy; he simply is. His creator and his wife lived with Palme for a time, but Palme's spirit seemed to virtually disappear with the death of his maker's spouse. One day, Palme receives the Egg of Touto from a strange female warrior, who asks him to travel with the sphere to Tama. As his designer is killed by those in pursuit of said warrior, Palme goes; he has no other purpose in life. All that changes after he meets a band of ragamuffins in his journey. As he grows closer to them, he comes out of his shell and latches onto the hope that he might be able to become human, so as to not only complete his quest but also win the girl he loves.

A Tree Of Palme is lavishly rendered in a style rarely seen in animated films other than those by Miyazaki, Otomo, and Oshii. Director Takashi Nakamura has worked with a couple of these greats and has shown potential in short films such as the "Franken's Gears" segment of Robot Carnival. He is certainly no slouch when it comes to visuals, and since he wears multiple hats as author and visionary on this film, he has to be given credit for creating a uniquely beautiful world with strange and awesome creatures. This is the kind of movie that you can watch multiple times and see new details in the animation each time.

In the liner notes, Nakamura writes how A Tree Of Palme was originally planned as a television series but was funded to be a feature film. This, ultimately, is why the film fails so thoroughly despite some truly impressive work. It feels like Nakamura felt that every worthwhile idea he created in the vision of Palme had to be used. Thus, most of the characters are important, but only for about five minutes each. They quickly fade into the background when their importance passes. This means we are constantly getting introduced to new players as we go, only to become mystified when they turn out to be bit characters at best. By the time the first hour is done, we're completely confused not only as to the plot (which is so hazy I can't fully describe it) but as to who's who and why they are even in this movie.

Those would be much more forgivable points if Palme was developed as an interesting character. However, he barely utters a complete sentence in the first hour of the show. Everything happens around him and to him, but he neither takes specific action nor shares with those around him his feelings. Once the film starts interacting with Palme seriously during the second hour and he finds a voice, we've forgotten that the movie just might be about him after all. Palme has a radical shift from hour one to hour two, and why is not a question that's answered.

That kind of disjointedness describes the entire feel of the film. We move from one set piece to the next without really understanding why we are suddenly in our new locale. The herky-jerky flow makes the film actually feel longer than it would if transitions were in place to explain what the heck was going on. Pacing issues abound--some parts seem unmercifully long, while others are too short. I wasn't drowsy going in, but I was by the two-thirds mark.

To top off the problems, the film feels vaguely schizophrenic in knowing its audience. The visual style seems to indicate a film made to appeal to children and young adults. Some characters like a small flying whatzit exist only for child appeal. And yet the film contains surprisingly realistic and bloody violence, along with minor but repeated profanity, as well as a plot far over youngsters' heads. It's right on that border between PG and PG-13, content-wise, so why does it want to draw in little ones? Perhaps it's a cultural difference in age appropriateness between here and Japan, but it further muddles the issue.

I must say that A Tree Of Palme is visually astounding, and unlike some other films I can't recommend, this one will probably wind up in the DVD player again. Now that I've seen it, perhaps it will reveal more of itself on repeat viewings, and I can't help but want to see some of its unique illustrations again. But as for a film that you can really enjoy on first viewing...uh uh. If I need another variation on the Pinocchio theme, I'd much rather watch A.I. again.

A Tree of Palme -- realistic violence, profanity, themes inappropriate for young children -- C