There's nothing supernatural to From Up on Poppy Hill, the latest film from Hayao Miyazaki's legendary animation house Studio Ghibli. No one flies, animals don't speak, and the only sparkles come off of Tokyo Bay. Still, there's magic in the craft of hand-drawn animation, a defiantly old-fashioned style here applied to a nostalgic story.
Set in 1963 Yokohama (as the cty prepares to host the Olympics), the film derives from the manga Kokuriko-zaka kara (From Coquelicot Hill) by Chizuru Takahashi and Tetsur? Sayama. The story concerns Umi Matsuzaki (dubbed by Sarah Bolger), a high-schooler living and working in a boarding house overlooking the bay. In the absence of her mother, a medical professor studying abroad, Umi looks after her grandmother and younger siblings.
Everyday adventure arrives in the form of schoolmate Shun Kazama (Anton Yelchin of Star Trek), who has taken notice of Umi's daily habit of raising maritime signal flags. Shun's daring spirit draws Umi more fully into the world, and as they bond over efforts to save a school clubhouse from demolition, romance inevitably stirs. But some surprising shared family history may drive a wedge between the two. (The English language version, voice-directed by Gary Rydstrom, features Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Christina Hendricks, Ron Howard, Jamie Lee Curtis and Aubrey Plaza, among others.)
It's a simple coming-of-age tale, told with Ghibli's characteristic unhurried pace and unearthly gentleness (think of Spirited Away and The Secret World of Arriety). Studio founder Miyazaki co-authored the screenplay, but it's his son Gor? Miyazaki (Tales from Earthsea) who directs, overseeing the studio's signature look of delicate detailing and shading amidst a generally sunny and verdant eye on the world. From Up on Poppy Hill spends some time in the quaintly ramshackle interior of the clubhouse, but the lasting impression is of sunny days, blue skies, and rippling blue waters lined with greenery.
In Japan, Ghibli has a Pixar-esque reputation for excellence, and From Up On Poppy Hill was both the top grossing Japanese film of 2011 and winner of the Japan Academy Prize for animation. As for American audiences, part of the film's appeal will be its exotic unbound demeanor: how gently the conflicts play out, how much the film seems to breathe. Entirely unlike the audio-visual onslaught customary in American animated features, From Up On Poppy Hill feels like a nature walk with friends.
That will be some folks' knock against the movie, a J-teen romance that's unabashedly sentimental and could just as easily have been filmed in live-action. It's fair to say that the film will appeal less to the jaded (teens included) and more to tweeners who still dream in chastely romantic terms about one day having someone to hold hands with. Taken on its own terms, From Up on Poppy Hill is plain nice, and there's nothing wrong with that.
GKids/Cinedigm gives From Up on Poppy Hill an outstanding home-video release in a Blu-ray + DVD combo-pack special edition. The clear, clean image perfectly preserves the film's intended look, with accurate contrast and rich , true tones of color and contast supporting a detailed picture. Aside from what appears to be fleeting aliasing on moving boats, the transfer avoids compression artifacts, giving an overall impression of the film's painterly beauty. Purists like me will appreciate that the Blu-ray presents DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 mixes in both Japanese and English, while choosing the former. In addition to being the "original" audio, the Japanese track gives a somewhat more potent all-around audio presentation, but both tracks excel: dialogue invariably comes through with total clarity, and immersive ambience is a hallmark, with careful placement of sound sources within outdoor (harbor-side properties and streets) and indoor environments (voices within a space).
Over three hours of bonus features qualify this as a special edition. "Storyboards" (1:30:51, HD) aren't an unusal extra, but how many discs include all of the storyboards, in a film-spanning presentation? Darn few.
"Director Goro Miyazaki on Yokohama" (17:37, HD) finds Miyazaki discussing the original manga on which the film was based, the origin of the film adaptation, and the film's all-important setting of time and place.
"Yokohama—Stories of the Past and Present" (22:36, HD) goes further in examining the city and, specifically its roles in history and culture.
The "English Voice Cast Featurette" (21:48, HD) provides, EPK-style, a glimpse of voice recording and talking-head clips of the English-language voice cast.
The most intriguing extras are "Press Conference—Theme Song Announcement" (39:33, HD)—an event that includes Hayao Miyazaki, and addresses the Japanese earthquake and tsunami—and "Hayao Miyazaki's Speech After the Staff Screening" (6:14, HD).
Rounding out the disc are a "'Summer of Farewells' Music Video" (5:45, HD), the "Japanese Trailers and Teasers" (7:11, HD), and the "U.S. Trailer" (2:25, HD).
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