There's no shortage of magic in "From Up on Poppy Hill," although it's not the kind people usually associate with the work of master animator Hayao Miyazaki.
His earlier classics gave us a cat-bus ("My Neighbor Totoro"), an ambulatory house ("Howl's Moving Castle") and a pilot turned into a pig ("Porco Rosso"), among other delights. "From Up on Poppy Hill" deals strictly with more human concerns.
Still, in an age where 2D animation is being pushed aside by computer-generated, three-dimensional efforts, the gorgeous hand-drawn majesty of the films of Japanese powerhouse Studio Ghibli are magic enough for anyone who loves movies.
Miyazaki recently turned 72 and has chosen to segue out of the director's chair; this time, he hands the reins to his son Goro ("Tales from Earthsea"), although the elder animator co-wrote the screenplay (with Keiko Niwa, based on the graphic novel by Tetsurô Sayama and Chizuru Takahashi) and participated in the film's planning process.
The end results may be a little talky and understated for the youngest of viewers, but fans of Hayao Miyazaki -- and they include pretty much every other animator working today -- will find this tale enchanting.
Set in Yokohama on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the film focuses on young Umi (voiced in the U.S. version by Sarah Bolger), who begins each day raising signal flags in honor of her father, who never returned from his seafaring voyages. She has her hands full feeding the tenants of her grandmother's boarding house but finds time to get involved in a student protest against the demolition of a beloved school clubhouse.
Leading the drive to save the building is her classmate Shun (Anton Yelchin), and while Umi and Shun find themselves drawn to each other, they also discover secrets of the past that could potentially derail any potential relationship.
"From Up on Poppy Hill" isn't overloaded with plot, but we get to know these characters intimately, not only in the way they relate to each other but also in the context of this very specific time and place: While these teens are coming of age, Japan is just beginning to recover from the devastating trauma of World War II and the Korean War, with the upcoming Olympics clearly seen as a symbol of the nation's return to prominence on the global scene.
The screenplay deftly balances the characters' intimate concerns with the nation's historic growing pains, resulting in a story that's as engrossing as the visuals are breathtaking. Even worlds away from the deities of "Spirited Away" or the forest spirits of "Princess Mononoke," the Ghibli touch is very much apparent here; almost any individual shot of the film is suitable for framing.
It's a testament to Studio Ghibli's reputation that U.S. executive producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy have been able to assemble such an impressive ensemble of voice actors; besides Bolger ("In America") and Yelchin, the cast includes Christina Hendricks, Bruce Dern, Aubrey Plaza, Gillian Anderson, Beau Bridges, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Noth and Ron Howard, among many others.
This film may not be quite at the level of the very best Studio Ghibli features -- if only for the modesty of its intentions -- but "From Up on Poppy Hill" still stands tall among the current crop of animated films. It's a stirring reminder (alongside the above-average "The Croods") that human beings can be just as compelling a subject for animation as talking animals.