Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki made quite a name for himself and his studio, Ghibli, in the previous decade. “Spirited Away” won the animated-feature Oscar in 2002, while “Howl's Moving Castle” scored a nomination in 2005.
Now comes “From Up on Poppy Hill,” a nostalgic look at postwar Japan directed by his son, Goro Miyazaki, with a screenplay co-written by Hayao. Unlike the earlier films, which delved into elements of fantasy, this one's rooted in realism.
It's not as good as Ghibli's best, but it is a sweet, sentimental and innocent story of youngsters falling in love in 1963 as they go to bat for an old student clubhouse scheduled for demolition.
The hand-drawn animation is beautiful, drenched in color and a sense of place — better than the script or character detailing. An all-star cast has been recruited to voice the English-language version.
The story centers on Umi (voice of Sarah Bolger), a high school sophomore living in her grandmother's boardinghouse, high on a hill in Yokohama overlooking the harbor. Her mother is away studying in the United States.
Every day Umi cooks the meals, does the shopping, shepherds her little sister and keeps up with her homework. Every day she raises maritime signal flags at the house as a message to her father, a ship captain who died in the Korean War.
Umi learns that a poem in the school paper about her signal flags was written by the editor, handsome Shun (voice of Anton Yelchin). A budding romance begins when she goes to the rambling old Latin Quarter house where all the school's male academic clubs meet: math, science, philosophy, architecture, music.
Shun is leading the boys' fight to save their clubhouse from demolition to make way for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Umi recruits the schoolgirls to help clean and refurbish the sad, disheveled building.
But there are disappointments. The school board refuses to prevent demolition, while Umi and Shun find that their families' pasts may stand in the way of a romance.
Answers from long ago come from Shun's adoptive father (voice of Chris Noth), the return of Umi's mother (voice of Jamie Lee Curtis) and a ship's captain who knew Umi's father (Bruce Dern).
Answers for the present come from a Tokyo corporate chairman (voice of Jeff Bridges), who hears an appeal from the students.
The detailing of ordinary daily life in the Latin Quarter and in Umi's boardinghouse is particularly impressive, and an accompanying jazzy score evokes all the right emotions.
The story feels a little bit ordinary, a tad melodramatic, a lot familiar. I found myself wondering why this story needed animation rather than being told with live action.
But I enjoyed it anyway, soaking up the beautiful artwork and pulling for the heartsick kids and their rambling old clubhouse.
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