The non-fantasy based Studio Ghibli films are pretty limited. In fact if we rule out My Neighbors the Yamadas considering its animation style and tone make it pretty cartoonish there hasn't been one since Grave of the Fireflies. It makes sense considering the studio built its name on its fantastic animations of even more fantastic creatures and worlds. Simply watching the animations in the likes of Spirited Away, Ponyo or Howl's Moving Castle makes for a great time with or without a plot (the plots are mostly still stellar).
From Up on Poppy Hill, their latest film, ditches the fantasy to tackle post-war Japan, a subject they've already beautifully and hauntingly documented in the aforementioned Grave of the Fireflies. Why go back and do it again when they already nailed it? After watching the movie I'm not sure.
From Up on Poppy Hill Director: Goro Miyazaki Rated: PG Release Date: March 28, 2013
Let's get the obvious out of the way: the film is stunning. No one animates as well as Ghibli does, and even when they aren't filling the screen with amazing creatures and monsters their scenes breath a wondrous life. The Japanese Port of Yokohama in post Korean War Japan is teeming with gorgeous animation and every scene breathes with a wonderful sense of nostalgia and fun. Like all Ghibli films its often the details that make it work and Poppy Hill is just crammed with them in every frame. From a creaky old club building to the downtown streets of the port the animation makes you want to pause each from and note the details or simply watch a quick shot over and over as it unfolds, delighting the eye and making you wish every studio put this much care into creating the world their characters were in.
That world is the world of high schooler Umi Matsuzaki (Sarah Bolger), who lost her father in the Korean War and runs an inn at the top of Poppy Hill with her grandmother while her mother is in America studying. Umi develops a crush on Shun Kazama (Anton Yelchin), who is involved in saving the Latin Quarter, an old, rickety clubhouse where different school clubs have resided for years. The house is going to be demolished for a new building as Japan demolishes much of its past to get ready for the 1964 summer Olympics. Umi and Shun along with the rest of the students decide to attempt to save the building all while Umi and Shun's relationship becomes far more complicated as they learn more about their parents and the complications of war.
While the film's overall plot is lighthearted it's themes are those of nostalgia and history. A large emphasis is put on keeping the past alive while moving into the future. It's almost the Cars of Studio Ghibli films. While it's a fantastic notion the movie isn't directed well enough to execute its plans. The narrative force of the film is all over the place, and director Goro Miyazaki doesn't seem to have learned from any of the mistakes he made with Tales from Earthsea. There's a lot of great stuff that's touching and fun, but it's mostly derived from the fantastic animation and not the structure or pacing of the film. The story falls flat while the animation does a better job by itself setting the themes of nostalgia and progress.
Something one doesn't usually hear about with a Ghibli film is the soundtrack, but Satoshi Takebe has put together a jazz soundtrack that matches the feeling of the animation almost perfectly. The best scenes in the film are establishing shots and montages when the animation and score are bouncing along wonderfully with each other.
I saw the English-dubbed version, which is actually one of the better Ghibli dubs I'd seen in a while. There's no truly big name stars in it to blow you away, but everyone does an admirable job keeping up. Disney puts effort into these dubs for the most part and it shows off. Would I have rather seen it subtitled? Of course, but when that isn't an option I'd rather have a good dub than a bad one.
It's too bad the overall package doesn't live up to Ghibli's usually high standards. There's plenty of fun to be had watching the movie, but it's a let down from their previous work. The sad part is that this may be attributed to the lack of fantastical in the film when really it can be rooted back to a lack of inspiration in its direction. If the story and structure had been executed better you could easily be watching one of the more enjoyable Ghibli films and there isn't a strange creature in site. Instead what we end up with is a wonderfully gorgeous film whose story doesn't live up to its look. For the pure love of the past and the joy of watching it post-war Japan unfold in Ghbili animation it's worth the watch for sure, but it can't be said that their best effort was put forth.