From Up on Poppy Hill (GKIDS, PG)

fromuponpoppy 75It’s hard to blame anyone but Goro Miyazaki for this mess; he just seems to be lacking the overall flair needed to be a successful director of animation 

 

fromuponpoppy 500 

I’ve mentioned often in the past year or so how it’s been a great time to be a fan of Studio Ghibli. In February 2012, we had The Secret World of Arrietty, one of last year’s best films, and then last November the touring Studio Ghibli retrospective, dubbed “Castles in the Sky,” came to Plaza Frontenac. Three months ago saw the release of the Playstation 3 masterpiece No No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, to which Studio Ghibli contributed character design and animation, and now we have the American release of From Up on Poppy Hill, the newest feature film from Goro Miyazaki—who is, of course, the son of Hayao Miyazaki, the world-renowned genius in the animation field.

Unfortunately, From Up on Poppy Hill is the rare Studio Ghibli misstep. I’ve seen every Ghibli feature film but one (Ocean Waves is the one I’m missing, and strictly speaking, that was made for television, not theatrical release), and Poppy Hill is one of only three of the Studio’s films that is anything short of excellent. (The other two are The Cat Returns and Tales of Earthsea, if you’re curious, with the latter of the two being Goro Miyazaki’s first feature film, so perhaps he’s the problem.)

From Up on Poppy Hill is set in Yokohama on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Our main character is named Umi (Sarah Bolger in the English dub; other cities are getting both the original Japanese language track and the English dub, depending on the day, time, and/or theater, but here in St. Louis we only get the English one), a sophomore in high school who is saintly in nature, what with keeping on top of her homework and being a good friend and helping her grandma look after all manner of youngsters and ragamuffins. After not too long, Umi encounters Shun (Anton Yelchin) and promptly falls for him, and, to take a quote from Shun, what comes next is “like a cheap melodrama.” 

Therein is one of many problems: There’s been an idiotic trend among the Seth MacFarlane/Martin McDonagh set lately where they think they can use whatever hoary cliché, hateful remark, or just about any other frowned-upon speech or device, but as long as they make some stupid meta-reference to the fact that they know what they’re doing and wink at you while they’re doing it, they think it’s somehow funny or interesting. It’s not. Likewise, when Shun makes the comment about the “cheap melodrama” the characters in the film are living through, it doesn’t excuse the crappy writing, only underlines it.

Aside from the love story, a lot of Poppy Hill concerns the characters trying to save a giant house called the Latin Quarter, which houses the high school’s various extracurricular activities, but has fallen in a state of disrepair thanks to the all-male tenants. The solution? Get a lot of girl volunteers to clean up the mess! I don’t know if that’s more offensive to the boys or to the girls. Meanwhile, the scenes in the Latin Quarter are excruciating; Poppy Hill shows about as much understanding of nerds as the average episode of The Big Bang Theory. (Sample dialogue from a Latin Quarter scene: “The crux of the matter is, how can we make archaeology cool again?”)

Alarmingly, Hayao Miyazaki co-wrote the screenplay to this one, alongside Keiko Niwa, and the story is based on a manga by Tetsurô Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi. One might be inclined to blame the English translation, given that Hayao has done nearly no wrong cinematically in his entire life, but really just about every aspect of Poppy Hill doesn’t work, so why should the Japanese screenplay be any different? 

For one thing, the film lacks the usual visual splendor of pretty much every other Studio Ghibli film. And while at least the English dialogue is bad (and likely the Japanese dialogue, too), the English voice cast is by and large pretty good (decent-sized names fill even the characters that only get a couple of lines; you’ll probably recognize the voices of Christina Hendricks, Aubrey Plaza, Jaime Lee Curtis, Beau Bridges, and Ron Howard as they pop up, however briefly). But the line readings are just awful, particularly from Bolger, which is a shame, given that she has the most dialogue of any character in the movie. The score, by Satoshi Takebe (as opposed to usual Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi), is jazzy and goofy and seems to imply that at any moment the characters are going to break out in song and dance.

What’s more, From Up on Poppy Hill was fighting something of an uphill battle from the outset, given that among Ghibli’s output it is closest in tone to Isao Takahata’s 1995 film Whisper of the Heart, which is an overlooked gem in the Ghibli back catalogue, but also not most people’s favorite. But really, it’s hard to blame anyone but Goro Miyazaki for this mess; he’s zero for two at Ghibli; most or all of the ham-handed artistic decisions on display here could have been fixed by him (minus directing the English translation and cast); and he just seems to be lacking the overall flair needed to be a successful director of animation, much less at one of the most celebrated animation studios in cinema history. That’s about the only thing you can really learn from watching From Up on Poppy Hill: Nepotism is an ugly thing. | Pete Timmermann

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