From Up on Poppy Hill

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/28/13 18:29:14

"Miyazaki Comes Down To Earth"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Although the great Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki did not actually direct "From Up On Poppy Hill"--he produced it and co-wrote the screenplay while his son Goyo served as director--it is his name that will no doubt lure audiences in with the expectations of seeing another dazzling fantasy along the lines of such unquestioned masterpieces as "Princess Mononoke," "Spirited Away" and "Ponyo." In that regard, they may be disappointed because the film is in fact a gentle, low-key and realistic comedy-drama with nary an element of the fantastic in sight. However, that should be the only disappointment that they feel for the film is a wonderful, charming and thoughtful work that demonstrates that animation is a perfectly viable narrative device for any type of movie as long as it is utilized with intelligence and style.

Set in 1963, when Japan was busily attempting to prepare itself for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics by tearing down old buildings in order to put up fancy new structures to show of to the world, the film opens by introducing us to Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger), a high school student who divides her time between her studies and helping her grandmother run her boarding house while her own mother is attending school in America--her father was lost at sea years earlier during the Korean War when his transport ship inadvertently hit a mine. One day, she is asked by classmate Shun (AntonYelchin)) to help save his clubhouse--a ratty old building where he and other like-minded students pursue an eclectic array of extra-curricular activities ("How can we make archaeology cool again?" "We can't!")--from the wrecking ball and in the process of cleaning up the joint, the two begin to grow close to each other. Everything seems to be going swell until a shocking discovery is made that throws both of their lives into upheaval.

No doubt as a result of the middling response to his previous directorial effort, the fantasy epic "Tales from Earthsea," Goyo Miyazaki has made an abrupt shift in genres with "From Up on Poppy Hill" and the change is all for the better--not only does it head off the inevitable comparisons with his esteemed father but he seems far more at home with the quieter and more realistic tone of this story. The initial scenes introducing us to Umi and her life are charming and the introduction to the denizens of Shun's clubhouse is a blast--imagine a building filled with hundreds of Max Fischers on their quirky individual pursuits. As the story develops, however, it quietly and imperceptibly shifts into more serious-minded manners without ever losing the delicate charms of the earlier scenes--so much so that some viewers may be surprised to discover just how powerful of an emotional impact it contains.

Although it doesn't quite hit the peaks of many of the masterpieces bearing the Miyazaki imprimatur, "From Up on Poppy Hill" is still well worth seeking out. It tells a strong and mature story in a clean and efficient style, the visual style is beautiful to behold and the cast hired to dub it into English has smartly been cast with an eye for performance instead of sheer star power--among others lending their voices are Gillian Anderson, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christina Hendricks, Bruce Dern, Beau Bridges and Aubrey Plaza, whose distinctive line readings inspire some of the film's biggest laughs. My only real problem is that as soon as all of the big revelations are made in the final scene, the film just ends abruptly without giving either the characters or viewers a chance to properly process the enormously important information that they have just received. That quibble aside, "From Up On Poppy Hill" is still a smart and entertaining work that adults and more thoughtful children should enjoy in equal measure. That said, any parents who plan on taking the whole family to see it should be prepared to answer some very interesting questions regarding the story on the car ride home.

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