THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"FROM UP ON POPPY HILL"
From Up on Poppy Hill - On Blu-Ray September 3
Studio Ghibli can usually be counted on to deliver something amazing. The studio's founder, Hayao Miyazaki, has either directed or overseen such first-rate animated features as Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Ponyo, and The Secret World of Arrietty. Studio Ghibli's most recent endeavor, From Up on Poppy Hill, was “planned” by the legendary filmmaker and directed by his son, Goro. It arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray on September 3.
The film is set in Yokohama, post-WWII. Japan is preparing to host the Olympics. A young schoolgirl named Umi (Sarah Bolger) meets and develops a bond with Shun (Anton Yelchin), a rebellious lad who works for the school newspaper. Shun also spends a lot of time in a large clubhouse on the school campus, where dozens of other students gather to learn, share information, and take part in activism. When a local businessman, Tokumaru (Beau Bridges), announces that the clubhouse will need to be torn down to make way for the Olympics, Umi and Shun hatch a plan to save it. First, they fix the place up. Then they make a personal appeal to Tokumaru. As they get to know one another, a shared secret from their pasts makes its way to the surface.
From Up on Poppy Hill has many of the things we have come to expect from Studio Ghibli. Their distinct style of animation – heavy on the use of bright colors and intricate backgrounds – is once again front and center. Like all their films, it's visually gorgeous. The characters are also detailed, with great expressiveness. It's always astounding how the animators are able to bring such emotion to them. For the English adaptation, celebs such as Ron Howard, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Noth, and Aubrey Plaza provide voicework, yet it's never a distraction. Every actor is solidly cast. The story, based on a 1980 comic book, has lots of gentle humor, which is also a Studio Ghibli trademark. In short, if you've enjoyed their previous films, you'll enjoy this one too.
You just probably won't enjoy it as much. While there's plenty to savor, From Up on Poppy Hill is a little different in that it lacks the fantasy element of most Studio Ghibli movies. There is no magical quality to the tale – no unusual creatures or fantasy worlds. Because it is a more realistic story, it's incumbent upon the film to create magic in a different way. This is where it stumbles slightly. The element of Umi and Shun trying to save the clubhouse works well; however, at times, Poppy Hill seems to be striving for profundity about Japan in the years after WWII, and it never quite achieves it. The theme looms in the background without ever coming to full fruition.
Nevertheless, it's really hard to go wrong with a Studio Ghibli film, and From Up on Poppy Hill is no exception. It may not be their very best work, but it's still good work, full of charm and fun.
( out of four)
From Up on Poppy Hill will be released on Blu-Ray and DVD September 3. There is an abundance of supplementary material. First up is the option to watch the movie with the English voice cast or the original Japanese cast. You can, if you prefer, also watch the entire movie in storyboard format. (I'm not sure why anyone would do that, but if you're really into storyboards, this will be right up your alley.)
“Press Conference – Theme Song Announcement” runs a full 40 minutes and documents Miyazaki and his team discussing what the film will be, pre-release. A young singer also debuts the movie's eventual theme song. “Hayao Miyazaki's Speech After the Staff Screening” is exactly what it sounds like. The Studio Ghibli staff has just seen the final product, and their leader stands up to address them. Interestingly, he admits that Japan's 2011 earthquake affected morale on the movie and that it's not their best work. Then Goro Miyazaki takes the stage and virtually apologizes for it. Both men are too hard on themselves, although this may also be a cultural thing.
“Director Goro Miyazaki on Yokohama” runs 18 minutes and finds the director offering discussion on his film and its setting. In a similar vein, “Yokohama – Stories of the Past and Present” is a travelogue, providing about 20 minutes of footage from locations that inspired From Up on Poppy Hill.
Finally, there's a 20-minute “English Voice Cast Featurette” that looks at the dubbing process for American audiences, and a music video for the “Summer of Farewells” song. A bunch of trailers and TV spots are included as well.
From Up on Poppy Hill is rated R for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.
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