Anyone familiar with Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke," "Howl's Moving Castle" and "Spirited Away" can attest to the enchanted web he's been weaving for three decades, telling simple stories of loss, adventure and resilience against backdrops of beguiling lushness.
The surprise with "From Up on Poppy Hill" is that the Miyazaki in the director's seat isn't 72-year-old Hayao but his son, Goro, who proves superbly well-poised to carry on his father's legacy.
The story of a girl grappling with first love, the absence of her parents and the anxieties of an on-rushing future in 1963 Yokohama has all the earmarks of a Miyazaki classic.
Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger), who runs a household that includes her grandmother, little sister and a group of female boarders while her mother is studying in the United States, has the wide-eyed innocence of a little girl, even as she attains emotional and practical wisdom beyond her years.
Mourning the loss of her father at sea some years earlier, Umi transfers her hope and longing to Shun (Anton Yelchin), a student from a nearby boys school who is trying to preserve his gang's delightfully ramshackle clubhouse from demolition.
The interplay between the romanticism of the past and the progress of the future is the tension that propels "From Up on Poppy Hill," in which the Japanese authorities are seeking to erase painful memories of World War II and the Korean War as they prepare for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Accompanied by sunny '60s pop tunes and hand-drawn in the house style of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, "From Up on Poppy Hill" occasionally succumbs to the "cheap melodrama" Shun invokes at one point (parents might want to prepare themselves for explaining why family members are ill-advised to fall in love with each other).
But the film's tender voice, captivating atmosphere and painterly visuals more than compensate for any narrative weaknesses.
From the vibrant red poppies of Umi's sun-dappled garden and the cool interiors of her old-fashioned house to the splashing waves of Yokohama's harbor and the dancing oil around a pan of frying mackerel, "From Up on Poppy Hill" pays homage not just to pre-CGI animation at its finest but an entire material culture, in scenes as carefully composed as anything found in the domestic dramas of Ozu.
Umi ultimately makes peace with her past, as she makes tentative steps toward promising days ahead. Considering that journey, as well as one Miyazaki passing the torch to the next generation, the film's exquisite lyricism and subtle tone of aching melancholy seem exactly right.
Somber, gentle, transporting and unapologetically beautiful, "From Up on Poppy Hill" is the kind of family film Hollywood doesn't make anymore. Thank goodness Tokyo does.
'From Up on Poppy Hill' ½
The charming story of a young girl in 1963 Yokohama falling in love for the first time while trying to keep her family together. The beautifully done pre-CGI animation is done by the son of famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki.
Rating: PG. Contains mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking.
Showing: Egyptian and Sundance Theaters.
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