Hayao Miyazaki, the godfather of Ghibli, is in the midst of releasing his newest film The Wind Rises in the East and so directorial responsibilities fell to his son Goro for this one. It’s just his second film, after his debut in 2008 (Tales from Earthsea) was met with critical indifference. The question therefore is whether Poppy Hill gives us any better indicator as to his talent.
The story is split into two central strands, although that’s not to say that these are completely separate from one another. They take the respective forms of (1) a developing relationship between a teenage boy and girl, and (2) the impending demolition of their school clubhouse as part of refurbishments for the upcoming 1964 Olympics. The theme that ties the two together is the idea of preserving legacy and respecting history, whilst understanding the impending necessity to move forward. Regrettably, however, the narrative often feels a little clumsy as it bumbles along without clear focus or direction.
Given the nature of the narrative we aren’t afforded the creatures, magic and other fantasy elements associated with Ghibli classics. The furry, colourful characters are lost, as is the sparkle that they – or perhaps Hayao Miyazaki – often bring to the table. It’s not the first Ghibli film to exist without these characters by any means, but their loss of presence is certainly felt (and Grave of the Fireflies it is not). Instead we’re treated to what feels to me like the most traditionally American coming-of-age teen tale since Ghibli’s inception.
The old make way for the new in terms of voice artists too, with emerging talent such as AudreyPlaza, Anton Yelchin and Christina Hendricks making up an eclectic cast. Perhaps it was this dubbed version – which I had to unfortunately endure instead of the preferable subtitled option – which affected my thinking, but I’m not convinced. Whilst there’s an inevitable amount of charm lost in translation (hence the value of subtitles), the issue goes beyond that in this particular instance.
Poppy Hill refers to itself, jokingly, as a ‘cheap melodrama’ at one point. Maybe there’s something in there that stops it from being that (and that alone), but I couldn’t seem to find much of whatever that was. To be sure, there are still dollops of sweetness and allure added haphazardly, but the lack of control and assurance from the director leads to a diluted message. Overall, it’s a very watchable film that – in Pixar terms – is around the levels of Brave quality. It’s not Cars, but neither is it the dazzling success of days gone by. There are plenty of positives for sure, but as for the future of Studio Ghibli in the hands of the father’s son? The jury’s still out on that one.