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Director: Gorō Miyazaki
Release date:
July 17, 2011
Rating:
 
★★★★
Review:

Like ‘Ocean Waves’ (1993) and ‘Whisper of the Heart‘ (1995) ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is one of those Ghibli films that could do well without animation. There’s no fantasy or metamorphosis around. Instead, the film is a modest little human drama. In fact, the film has much in common with the two earlier Ghibli features. Like ‘Whisper of the Heart’ ‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ has a female teenager star, and like ‘Ocean Waves’ there’s a strong air of nostalgia pervading the movie, especially in the gorgeous and evocative background art.

‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ takes place in harbor town Yokohama, somewhere between 1961 and 1963, before the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and after the release of the melancholic song ‘I Look Up as I Walk’ by Japanese crooner Kyu Sakamoto, which is heard several times during the movie, and which even became famous in the West back then, with the silly and out-of-place title ‘the Sukiyaki song’.

‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ focuses on teenager Umi Matsuzaki who lives with her grandmother and little brother at a boarding house with five female boarders, for whom Umi cooks breakfast and dinner. Umi’s mother is a professor, who’s abroad most of the time, while her father, a seafarer, has died in the Korean war (1950-1953). Each day Umi raises some signal flags in remembrance of her father. These are seen by Shun Kazama, a schoolmate who works at a tugboat. Both Umi and Shun thus are hard working children, so typical for the Ghibli studio.

The story focuses on the love that grows between Umi and Shun, and some unforeseen complications it raises. But there’s also an important subplot in which Shun and his fellow students try to protect their old club house called ‘The Latin Quarter’ against demolishing. Only when Umi starts to help, leading an army of female students, the protest gains momentum. The clubhouse scenes provide some comic relief in an otherwise emotional deep and heart-breaking story of friendship, love, and loss.

It’s impressive how the film makers show the emotions in the subtlest of ways. For example, at one point Shun evades Umi’s presence, but we see her reaction to this neglect only sparingly on her face, and with the slightest of actions. Thus, when Umi finally lets her emotions flow, it hits the viewer all the harder.

Hayao Miyazaki’s son Gorō Miyazaki does an excellent job as a director, and the animation is top notch, especially on the main characters. There are a few flashback scenes and there’s a short dream sequence, but otherwise there’s a strong unity of time and place, with all the action taking place in only a few settings and in a limited time frame. The film thus stays focused all the time, even when showing minor deviations from the main plot, like one of the boarders leaving the house.

In all, ‘From Upon Poppy Hill’ may be a modest film, in its emotional depth it’s in no way less impressive than the studio’s more outlandish masterpieces like ‘Spirited Away’ (2001) or ‘Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea’ (2008). Highly recommended.

Watch the trailer for ‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘From Up on Poppy Hill’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

Directors: Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda
Release Date: June 11, 2015
Stars: The Minions
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Part of the success of ‘Despicable Me’ (2010), Illumination’s first animation film lie in the minions, Gru’s yellow little helpers. However, their existence was never explained in that film, nor in the sequel ‘Despicable Me 2’ (2013) in which they even played a more important part. Meanwhile, the little yellow buddies were obviously a merchandise hit, so it seemed only fitting that the minions got their own film.

The resulting picture, aptly titled ‘Minions’, is both a spin-off and a prequel of the Despicable me franchise, and finally deals with the origin of the Minions and how they came to know Gru. Surprisingly, however, both these subjects are dealt with in the shortest fashion: most of the minions’ origin is told during the title sequence, in elegant 2D animation, recalling the cartoon modern style of the 1950s. The meeting with Gru is presented as almost an afterthought at the end of the movie, and is partly told during the end titles.

In between we have the story. This starts with a ten minute long introduction, narrated by Geoffrey Rush, who tells us how the minions have always had one single goal in their lives: to serve the biggest villain around, but how lost many by their own stupidity. Finally they end up in a remote cave somewhere in the Himalayas, where they lose all sense of purpose, until one of them, a tall minion called Kevin, proposes to leave the cave and find a villain worthy to serve. Kevin sets out, accompanied by little Bob and one-eyed Stuart, and the rest of the film is devoted to this trio, their search, their coming to the Villain-Con convention in Orlando, FL, and their serving of the biggest villain of 1968, Scarlett Overkill (voiced by Sandra Bullock), who wants to steal the British crown.

So the film takes part mostly in London during the swinging sixties, and thus features a lot of period music (e.g. ‘I’m a Man’ by The Spencer Davis Group, ‘Break on Through’ by The Doors, ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks, and ‘My Generation’ by The Who). In the end, even three Beatles songs are used, ‘Love Me Do’, and during the end titles ‘Got to Get You Into My Life’, followed by a minionese version of ‘Revolution’, which is accompanied by numerous 3D effects, typical of the early 2010s.

Surprisingly, queen Elizabeth II (voiced by British comedienne Jennifer Saunders) has an active part in the story. This is a surprising choice, as the British queen is not only a real person, she’s still alive. Refreshingly, both Scarlett Overkill and Elizabeth II are presented as strong, independent female characters. Otherwise, women are scarce during the movie, and of course, like the Smurfs, all Minions are male (the Smurfette was created by Gargamel).

Like ‘The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge out of Water’ from earlier that year ‘Minions’ is clearly a film made only to entertain. Nothing in the entire film can be taken serious. In contrast, the comedy is broad, and both the human design and the animation are deliberately over-the-top and cartoony, a refreshing and welcome contrast to the more toned down Disney-Pixar-style.

However, Stuart, Kevin and Bob are pretty static characters and have no story arc. In fact, they hardly have a personality at all, and they are mostly distinguished by their looks, not by character animation. Here lies the main problem of ‘Minions’: one hardly cares for the three main protagonists, and this gives the film an empty feel.

Moreover, not all the humor works. The minions’ jabbering rather quickly wears out its welcome, and especially Herb Overkill, Scarlet’s husband (voiced by Jon Hamm) is painfully unfunny, and could certainly be missed. More successful are Jennifer Saunders as Queen Elizabeth, and a family of villains. However, my biggest laughs went to a throwaway gag during the Villain-Con convention: one professor Flux (voiced by Steve Coogan) has made a time machine to fetch future copies of himself to help him in the lab. I’ll not spoil the gag here, but within seconds things go terribly wrong.

Despite its flaws, the film is well-told, and beautifully made. Between all the nonsense there’s actually not only excellent animation, but also superb rendering, lighting and effect animation, thrown in so seemingly effortlessly, one hardly notices. I especially like Kevin’s wanderings in the London streets, while being chased by a bunch of villains. The mist, the lighting, the rain, the reflections, the wet surfaces are all very well done during these scenes. Moreover, the camera often takes his point of view, watching the world in worm’s-eye view. Another animation highlight is Scarlett’s story to the minions, told in a naive style, imitating stop-motion techniques.

In all, ‘Minions’ may be a rather shallow and far from essential film, it’s well-made, and entertaining enough to watch at least once.

Watch the trailer for ‘Minions’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Minions’ is available on Blu-Ray and DVD

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