A Tree of Palme creates one of the most breathtaking fantasy worlds I’ve ever seen in a movie — a genuinely alien and unearthly place — and uses it as the backdrop for a story that threatens to collapse under the weight of its own complexity. This has happened many times before, sadly: I was dazzled by Rock & Rule and Fire and Ice, for instance, but their stories played like shabby afterthoughts. Now comes Palme, which also looks astounding and has a great deal of ambition, but exactly the opposite story problem: It has about one hundred percent too much story for its own good.
I am normally quite kind to any movie that dares to show us something new and different. I forgave Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within its somewhat treacly story because they were breaking truly new ground with the film’s look. Palme is a more conventional mix of cel animation (and some CGI), a great deal of it is dazzling and skillfully done. But it’s frustrating to see all those great visual ideas get bogged down by plot complexities that lead the story into cul-de-sacs. It’s also not a “kid’s movie” — it’s far too dark and troubling for that, and has far too many ideas thrown at us without human context to be involving. There is a legend that when Rock Hudson was at the premiere of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, he stormed out after the first twenty minutes growling “Will someone please tell me what the hell this is all about?” I think I now know how he felt.
Palme, a Pinnochio-like puppet, is charged with a mission that will encompass the meaning of his existence.
In fact, for the first twenty minutes or so, I was not even sure whose story was being told, or to what end. The film is set in a bleak land, something like the blasted, unforgiving-looking world that Yoshitaka Amano created for Vampire Hunter D or Angel’s Egg. The native lifeforms include bizarre, finger-like monsters that worry their prey to death, or giant gnarled trees that grow “on the memories of past civilizations.” Somewhere in this world lives an old man who built a wooden assistant, Palme, for his sickly wife Xian. When she died, Palme himself pined away; the last thing his creator had counted on, it seems, was for him to form that strong an attachment.
One day a strange woman rides out of the wasteland and presents Palme with an artifact from her civilization. She has been guarding it with her life, and can do so no longer. The old man’s attacked and injured by others who come looking for her, but before he dies he integrates the egg into Palme’s body and sends him off to complete the woman’s mission — since, as it turns out, her mission and his own reasons for existence overlap greatly. If Palme doesn’t obtain more of the oil used to preserve the egg, his own body will devolve back into a tree, take root in the ground, and become inert.
Palme's strange nature comes as a surprise to the gang of child thieves he befriends,
and doubly a surprise to Popo, the girl he forms a bizarre fixation with.
Palme wanders, and is eventually kidnapped by child-slavers. He’s set free by a gang of delinquent urchins, but when they find out what he is, they cower in fear of him. He also forms an unhealthy fixation with Popo, a girl he spots by accident during one of the gang’s smash-and-grab runs. She looks exactly like Xian did as a girl, and his memory of her seems to be one thing that motivates him at all. It’s a touching element, and it gives the movie a badly-needed human dimension. Later, he and Popo grow closer together, but their drama — probably the best thing in the film — is subsumed by the movie’s general confusion.
Over time many of the movie’s threads link up and become clear — the woman from the wasteland, for instance, is the mother of one of the urchins — but by that time the movie has burned out a good deal of its welcome. For one, Palme spends too much of the movie’s running time as a reactive force instead of an actual sympathetic character. The galaxy of supporting players he’s given to push against come and go in waves, and don’t provide us with much to hang onto either. (Why is it that the most interesting characters in movies like this wind up being the walk-ons? Possibly because they’re the most spontaneously-created, and the least agonized-over.) Things are not helped by the way some people’s motivations (like Popo’s mother’s) arbitrarily reverse themselves when the story demands it.
Palme was written and directed by Takashi Nakamura, an animation director and character designer who has worked on a slew of other projects that resemble this one in scope and impact: Akira, Robot Carnival, Dagger of Kamui, Harmagedon. He is a great character designer and creator of big-scale action set-pieces. One of the best scenes, early in the film, involves the urchin gang using a wrecking ball (!) to spring one of their comrades from captivity. There are other sequences that have great emotional impact as well, as when Palme murders an animal almost without trying, but they are lost and wandering in the desert of the movie’s bigger conceits. It’s a shame, because some of the film’s ideas are really quite fierce and original — the whole concept of “trees of memory,” for instance — but they’re not followed up on in a way that takes root, if you’ll forgive the pun.
The one film Nakamura worked on that this most resembles is Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, not only in its post-apocalyptic feel but in the way the life-cycles of the world around the characters is like a character in itself. Nakamura also wants to invoke a Miyazaki-esque sense of humanism, but his story’s too busy and crowded to let such things happen organically. His characters just don’t have the complexity, or the basic interest, to support it. This is most painfully felt near the end, where suddenly the film begins throwing in one arbitrary extra climax after another just to make it all the more “epic.” By that point I was wishing the film had ended twenty minutes earlier.
The spectacular animation design, action set-pieces and artwork unfortunately don't make Palmebearable.
Palme was a dream project of Nakamura’s; he allegedly worked on it for something like ten years before finally being given the opportunity to bring it to fruition. That may have been exactly the problem. He was so close to this story, he couldn’t see that as it stood its subject wasn’t really the most interesting thing about it. The same problem plagued Akira creator Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s disappointing Steamboy: Of the eight years of work put into the film, it felt like they’d spent less than a day on the story. Palme feels more like they did indeed spend four years on the story, but used most of it taking out a comma one day and then putting it back in the next.