**1/2 (out of four)
Based on the jolly, jazzy score that keeps “From Up on Poppy Hill” lively, the latest from Studio Ghibli (“Howl’s Moving Castle”) appears to have missed its calling as a Broadway musical. Every 10 minutes, it seems like one of the actors (Anton Yelchin, Aubrey Plaza and Christina Hendricks) tasked with dubbing the Japanese-animated film into English will bust out into song.
Lame, hypothetical lyrics (to the tune of any generic musical theater number): “I’m up! On Poppy Hill. I’m up! And ain’t it a thrill ...”
It ain’t a thrill, but the film, co-adapted by legend Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) from a Japanese comic and directed by Miyazaki’s son Goro, gets by for a while on a story with more humor and engagement than recent Ghibli disappointments (“The Secret World of Arriety,” “Ponyo”). In 1963 Yokohama, Japan, teenage Umi (Sarah Bolger of “In America”) cooks and does laundry for the family members and boarders living at her grandma’s house, barely finding time to go to school. She’s one of many who has eyes for Shun (Yelchin) after he jumps off the roof to protest the potential closing of the building that houses many extra-curricular clubs. Seriously, the guy can’t change a light bulb without a crowd of girls giggling, and when he notes he cut his hand shaving—who does that?—some young ladies coo, “He shaves!”
Then “Poppy Hill” takes an unfortunate turn when elaborate secrets throw the main characters’ family histories into question. (Hint: It’s a time-worn dilemma, recently seen in “Incendies” and “People Like Us”). “It’s like a cheap melodrama,” Shun says, and he’s right. Plus, the ultimate resolution ignores the previous awkwardness of the situation and serves as a convenient solution to a major issue regarding how teenagers handle their feelings.
The Miyazakis, at least in Karey Kirkpatrick’s (“The Spiderwick Chronicles”) adaptation of the script, fail to connect the approaching Tokyo Olympics with the local push to dispose of anything old. It’s also the latest film to paraphrase the quote, lodged in my mind tied to “Magnolia,” about people unprepared to let go of a past that’s not ready to let go of them either.
It doesn’t make the statement less true, but when a film’s occasional charms eventually slide away, its frustrations tend to linger longer than its highlights.
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