|'As is sometimes the case with Ghibli adaptations of existing works, the spark that can routinely be seen in their original stories is notably absent'.|
Speaking of 'lesser' films when referring to the output of Studio Ghibli is always a precarious business. So high have the animation house set the bar through their previous releases that it's tempting to label anything that falls short of that measurement a failure, when actually even the 'lesser' offerings from the studio have plenty going for them.
The situation is undoubtedly magnified when you're talking about a film from the potential heir to the Ghibli throne. Such is the case with From Up On Poppy Hill, the second feature from Gorō Miyazaki - son of master animator, director and Ghibli co-founder Hayao - following 2006's Tales From Earthsea. It's understandable why the younger Miyazaki was reportedly reluctant to follow in the elder's footsteps, with comparisons to his father's celebrated career undoubtedly both inevitable and intimidating.
To be frank, the parallels between master and apprentice here regularly show the director in a pleasingly positive light. Miyazaki is clearly developing a similar appreciation for the artistry to be found in appealing locations: the Port of Yokohama where the story takes place is regularly allowed to take centre stage, and the Latin Quarter, a dilapidated school clubhouse which features throughout, is a typically characterful Ghibli setting.
What lets Miyazaki's film down is both the story, adapted by his father in collaboration with Keiko Niwa, and his struggle to elevate it beyond the ordinary. From Up On Poppy Hill is based on a manga series in much the same way as 1995's Whisper Of The Heart. However, unlike the earlier film, and as is sometimes the case with Ghibli adaptations of existing works, the spark that can routinely be seen in their original stories is notably absent.
Where Yoshifumi Kondō had some fantastical elements to balance Whisper Of The Heart's more realistic story, Miyazaki has no such material to lift his film. The relationship between Umi (Masami Nagasawa) and Shun (Junichi Okada) feels authentic and offers a couple of satisfying twists, but just isn't enough to carry the film through some notably slow patches. The secondary narrative, focused upon the restoration of the Latin Quarter in an attempt to avoid its demolition, is engaging enough but ultimately suffers the same problem as the main story.
Ghibli has done historical drama to an exceptional standard in the past, with Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises offering the most recent example. From Up On Poppy Hill's period setting of the 1960s provides some thought-provoking material and themes, including Japan's attempts as a nation to move on during a period of ideological upheaval following the conclusion of the Second World War. In fact, had the younger Miyazaki made this topic a more prominent focus it's likely his film would have felt closer in quality to his father's swansong. As it stands, whilst there's plenty to like within From Up On Poppy Hill, and ample promise on display for Miyazaki's future as a filmmaker, there's also nowhere near enough to recommend it as one of Studio Ghibli's very best.