Palme is a boy who is made of wood, who once lived peacefully with his "father", and a woman named Xian, his "mother". Xian fell sick and died, and since that day, Palme stopped moving... until the woman came. She came in the night bearing an orb, and when Palme awakened from his years of sleep, she entrusted the orb to him to bear to the underworld for purposes unknown. The sap would allow him to continue to live, she explained, and needed to be delivered by him to the place she came from. If he brought the sap as she desired, he could finally become human. And thus, with that, Palme began his journey to the underworld, meeting friends along the way.
A Tree of Palme is definitely best described as an extremely dark Pinocchio. And when I say dark, I mean dark. This is not something you’d show your kids for sure. There is plenty of violence including senseless violence and killing of animals, some of which happens by the hands of Palme himself in his various rages. People get killed for no reason, people are emotionally and physically abused, and in general, there isn’t much that’s pleasant about this film. Then again, that’s a good thing.
Even though people might coin this to be a Ghibli ripoff, it’s not, and you need to go into it not expecting anything similar. This is a very dark, messed up plot, which has a somewhat frustrating (yet fitting) ending to round it off. There is essentially zero comedy, a ton of character development that isn’t necessarily positive, but all of it is so incredibly appropriate.
All in all, it’s damn good, but it does also have a few flaws; namely, the plot has some points that don’t make a lot of sense and aren’t explained well. In addition, this movie is LONG... as in, 2 hours 15 minutes long. Though there might be some action and suspenseful scenes, it still has a very slow pacing and feel, which might bore some viewers. I know both times I’ve seen this, I had to watch it in parts, since I couldn’t keep enough attention span to watch it all at once. Thus the 7 instead of an 8 or 9, but still, this is a great story that will please any fans of dark fairy tales of sorts.
The animation in A Tree of Palme feels like a combination of several types, all of which are wonderfully done. In general, the barren landscape, odd plants and animals and detail will remind you of watching Nausicaa (though better done, in my opinion). The character designs will remind you of a Disney film in a way, especially the pointy-nosed characters. And the rest will remind you of... something else. I’ve seen a lot of Ghibli films and this isn’t a clone by any means. The animation is dark, detailed, and unique, and is hard to describe.
And now, a little more detail. The backgrounds are bleak and very, very detailed. Many of the scenes could have been a painting with the level of detail. The atmosphere reminded me quite a bit of one of the Myst books, to be honest. Some of the monsters are unique looking, some look like giant penises (I swear), and others reminded me of a Disney film (Palme’s pet dragon, for example). The character designs are the only thing that I didn’t like very much. Some of them look normal, but others such as Shatta and Popo’s mother have very pointy noses, which looks unnatural for anything Japanese. Colors used are very mild and neutral, but still have a range of colors that are pleasing. The monsters and landscape tended to be made up of dark blues and greens, and plenty of brown.
Imagine a cross between a Disney and Ghibli film, and you have the music of A Tree of Palme. The soundtrack is orchestral in nature, and fits the action and mood of the movie very well (as in, it’s dark the whole time). If you watch the making of featurette, the instrument used to make the unique sound is discussed. Admittedly, after watching that segment I had a little more appreciation for the music than I did before.
The voice actors did a marvelous job in the Japanese version, and surprisingly good as well was the dub. The voice actors were chosen extremely well, and matched the voices of the Japanese voice actors very nicely. In addition, they actually played their parts well and didn’t just sound like they were reciting lines.
Easily the best part of the movie was the characters, though they don’t appear to be the most compelling part of the film at first. It’s very interesting to watch characters change so dramatically from beginning to end, and this movie was full of ones that had major, major development over the point of only two mere hours.
First and most importantly, there’s Palme. At first, he seems like a very kind and caring boy (made of wood, of course), and you feel very empathetic towards his goal of finally becoming human. Over the period of the movie, he changes dramatically and become not only angrier, but more frightening in general. He acts sort of like he’s bipolar, or like an abusive husband. One minute he’s happy, the next he’s freaking out, killing things (occasionally), or hurting the ones he loves. He goes from worshipping Popo to almost biting his arm off in anger. It’s chilling, especially when he keeps repeating "I just want to be human!" while going into a fit. He is obsessive, irrational, and at times, out of control... everything a human is. How ironic.
A secondary but very developed character is Shatta’s mother. At first, we know very little about her, but by the end, we are told a very chilling and tragic story of her emotions and motives, and even though events turn out the way they do, we still have such empathy for her.
And then there are all the other characters. Shatta and Palme’s companions aren’t developed a large amount, but they still have their merits. We get to know street kids, family members (some good, some bad), and a plethora of soldiers. All of them flesh out the movie nicely, but Palme is definitely the highlight out of everyone.
I’ll be honest; I’m not a huge fan of Ghibli films like everyone else out there. With the exception of a few, I find them to be too light hearted for my tastes and aren’t compelling. A Tree of Palme, however, was very dark, very moving, and very compelling in a lot of ways. At times I was quite shocked when certain things happened, and was surprised I was affected the way I was. Truly, the characters make the movie as good as it is, and any fans of character development will be able to appreciate the transformation of the cast over the 2 hour period. This movie definitely isn’t for everyone. If you dislike dark things, don’t watch this. If you do like dark things, and can go into the viewing with an open mind (as in, don’t assume it’s a Ghibli clone), you’ll enjoy this quite a bit, I think. It’s definitely unique as I’ve seen nothing like it. Try it out for size. I think you’ll enjoy it.