(Palo Alto Square) 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 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 Tetsuro 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, also 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 Goro 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.
Rated PG for mild thematic elements and some incidental smoking images. One hour, 31 minutes.
— Peter Canavese
(Century 16, Century 20) "Kiss me like you want to get slapped." When a character comes out with this howler in "The Host," it's enough to make you wonder if writer-director Andrew Niccol — adapting Stephenie Meyer's YA novel — is having a laugh at someone's expense ... as in taking the money and running.
Perhaps the Oscar-nominated writer of "The Truman Show" accepted this body-snatcher disaster from the author of "Twilight" because, as the creator of "Gattaca" and "In Time," he has simply pigeonholed himself in the futuristic dystopia genre. Where there's "Twilight," there's money. And "The Host" isn't the sort of work one has to take pride in; it's more the sort of job where you work just hard enough not to get fired.
Anyway, "The Host" proposes a future in which an alien invasion has left the vast majority of Earthlings possessed by delicate-tendriled light slugs. No, really, that's the plot of "The Host." How delicate-tendriled light slugs that can fit in the palm of one's hand achieved interstellar travel and conquered, y'know, Earth, maybe they'll explain that in the prequel.
I'd say it gets better, but it doesn't. Saoirse Ronan ("The Lovely Bones") plays Melanie Stryder, an extraordinary girl strong-willed enough to resist, at least partially, light-slug-possession (quoth the light-slugs, "This one wants to live"). Which is a recipe for comedy, as it turns out, because Melanie is now the Girl with Two Brains. Thus, through the magic of voice-over, host Melanie and symbiont Wanda (short for "Wanderer") begin bickering with each other like nobody's business.
In the company of a hunky guy she happens upon (Max Irons' Jared), Melanie escapes to a desert hideaway, where Earthlings who have escaped possession try not to be found by the likes of Diane Kruger's "The Seeker." There, the film settles into dull earnestness, represented by Oscar winner William Hurt, the king of dull earnestness. He plays Melanie's Uncle Jeb, the rebel leader who has been protecting her younger brother Jamie (Chandler Canterbury).
There have been few movies in the history of cinema with as much talk about kissing as "The Host" has. That's because Meyer, knowing which side her bread is buttered on, has included a love triangle. Jared loves Melanie, Melanie loves Jared, but — uh oh — Wanda loves tall drink of water Ian (Jake Abel). Hence, the aforementioned "kiss me like you want to get slapped" strategy, a plan to coax out a suddenly recessive personality. And so we get new candidates for the Bad Dialogue Hall of Fame, like "You hit me for kissing you ... I love you." and "Let me guess: You have two minds about it." Face palm.
"The Host" proves inept at character development and even worse at trying to develop any tension. The picture feints in the direction of philosophy: The alien "Souls" see their symbiosis as entirely natural, and instead of changing the culture of each world, they "experience it and perfect it." On Earth, they've eliminated hunger, healed the environment and ended international conflict. Of course, they've also mind-raped most of humanity into something very near brain-death, so they probably won't be winning any "Humanitarians of the Year" awards.
Do not consume "The Host" before operating heavy machinery. Fits of giggling may ensue.
Rated PG-13 for some sensuality and violence. Two hours, five minutes.
— Peter Canavese