The overwhelming problem with Goro Miyazaki's films is how much the technical quality of their animation outshines the films themselves. His first feature, Tales from Earthsea, was visually stunning in the fluidity of the character movement and the exacting detail and textures of the environments. But the strengths of the animation were wholly undone by the clunky plot, the platitudinous dialogue, and the lack of imagination in the character design. His second feature, From Up on Poppy Hill, is a step forward for the director, but it still carries a nagging sense of imbalance. Once again, the animation is top-notch, but even though the director's legendary father, Hayao Miyazaki, has adapted the film's script, the plot—and the clumsy handling of its emotionally cathartic moments—seems to drag the rest of the work down.
Sourced from a girls' manga series, From Up on Poppy Hill follows Umi (voiced by Sarah Bolger), a teenager who's running her family's boarding house after her father's death at sea. The boys at her school have a dilapidated building that houses all their academic clubs, and it's here that Umi meets Shun (Anton Yelchin), a writer for the student newspaper. Upon hearing that the school board intends to tear down the rickety clubhouse (the year is 1963 and Japan is attempting to modernize and rebuild in advance of the upcoming Olympics), Umi enlists the girls at the school to clean and renovate the clubhouse in hopes of changing the board's minds. In the process, Umi and Shun fall in love, but their feelings for each other are complicated by the fact that Shun mistakenly believes that they had the same father.
Thus two narrative strands unfold, but they never come together sufficiently, nor is either satisfactory on its own. The clubhouse narrative allows for a lot of great visuals at the hands of the animators: The images are chock-a-block with imaginative renderings of excesses and interests of cocky teenage boys. But the story arc is somewhat facile (girls and boys work together, the clubhouse is saved), and its lesson about preserving history instead of demolishing it to make way for new, shiny things is too obvious. The love story also allows for beautiful illustrations, including a twilight stroll through old Yokohama, where the artists' use of light and dusk is to be applauded, but the melodrama is strained. That these two narratives run parallel paths which both come to easy resolutions but rarely weigh on each other further confounds the work.
But the film's most disappointing aspect is that it fails to utilize the animated form for any real purpose. Most of the successful Studio Ghibli films contain a fantastical element, exploiting the medium to the fullest. In Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, familiar forms transmogrify into unimaginable creations, and whole new worlds are created. Even in Grave of the Fireflies, the studio's most successful work that's grounded in realism, the animation serves a purpose: The story of two children orphaned and alone in WWII Japan is so unsettling that the illustrations work to present a level of remove from the real events that makes it watchable while still wrenching. But From Up on Poppy Hill could have been a live-action film with little change to the content, feeling, or overall success of the work. As a result, it seems like a waste of a lot of very pretty pictures.