MRR Review: "From Up on Poppy Hill"

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A group of Yokohama teens look to save their school's clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
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MRR Review: "From Up on Poppy Hill"

-- Rating: PG
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 16, 2012
Directed by: Goro Miyazaki
Genre: Animation/Drama/Family

The latest release from Studio Ghibli, "From Up on Poppy Hill," marks the second feature-length animated film directed by Goro Miyazaki and the first collaboration between him and his father, the legendary Hayao Miyazaki. Set in Japan in the 1960s, the story follows a group of teenagers as they try to save their school's clubhouse from being demolished.

The plot itself is fairly simple and straightforward, leaving out all of the fantasy elements that are typically associated with Studio Ghibli films. There are only few settings visited in a small Japanese town by the sea, and none of the characters embark on a fantastic adventure or have to overcome an evil villain. This simplicity isn't a bad thing, however; the story is actually better for it. If "From Up on Poppy Hill" was a more complex story, then there's a lot that would likely be lost in the mix.

The story follows a teenage girl, Umi Matsuzaki (voiced by Sarah Bolger), as she struggles to come of age while her mother is abroad and her late father's memory haunts her. Raising a set of flags every day for the sailors as part of homage to her lost father, she catches the attention of classmate Shun Kazama (voiced by Anton Yelchin), who writes poetry about her actions and finds himself drawn to her. They then team up to try and find a way to prevent the clubhouse from being demolished amid cuts made in preparation for the 1964 Olympics that are being held in Tokyo. Through the quest done by the duo, the film explores the importance of the past and the essence of not letting it be destroyed in an effort to move into the future.

The romance that develops between Umi and Shun is bittersweet, mimicking how first love often is. The pair grows closer and closer as they try to find a way to save the school's clubhouse, and when they're torn apart, Umi is left not really understanding why. The revelation that drives them apart is an interesting one, tying in well with the film's recurring theme about the past. A bit of a twist is put on that theme in this case, however, with the vision of the past being a bit darker than those presented in the rest of the film. Though the revelation isn't made explicitly clear to Umi, viewers clearly understand the pain that both Umi and Shun must be feeling.

Like many offerings from Studio Ghibli, "From Up on Poppy Hill" has an art that's quite beautiful, even if it is a bit subdued. The characters aren't designed to be extraordinary, but instead fit in perfectly with the little seaside village that is rendered in loving detail in the background. There are scenes where the underlying beauty of the film comes to the forefront for a few precious moments, then fades back to the background so as not to overwhelm the story that's being told. Featuring hand-drawn animation, the film isn't meant to be at the cutting edge of artistic design; instead, it uses the art as a tool to deliver the story with the emotional impact that it deserves.

While the story is the main focus of the film, there are a few places where it falls a bit flat. At times, the pacing of the movie seems just a bit off and plot points like the coming of the Olympics seem to get a little less focus than they deserve. While it's understandable that Miyazaki didn't want these plot points to dominate the film, given the role that they play in driving the plot, they should have been featured a bit more than they were. That said, with the exception of these few flat or off-pace moments, the rest of the film comes together wonderfully.

It's hard to compare "From Up on Poppy Hill" to past Studio Ghibli works such as "Howl's Moving Castle" or "Spirited Away," both because of the more realistic setting of this film and how different the overall tone of the film is. The film definitely fits in among the past features of the studio but at the same time stands on its own as an experience that's not to be missed. While you shouldn't go into the theater expecting the film to be the same sort of experience as those of other films, if you're a fan of Studio Ghibli's work, then you'll very likely find a lot to like about "From Up on Poppy Hill" regardless.

Rating 4 out of 5