Thursday, March 14, 2013

Is "From Up on Poppy Hill" the First Best Animated Feature Contender?

This week, director Goro Miyazaki's From Up on Poppy Hill receives limited release. For many, Studio Ghibli is the premiere animation studio from Asia, having given us such gems as Princess Mononoke and the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. The only difference is that those were made by Goro's father Hayao. While the studio continues to regale with quality work each year, they haven't had any success with the Academy Awards since 2005's Howl's Moving Castle. Is it possible that as one of the first notable animated features of 2013 that this will be the year that they return to the Best Animated Feature category?

Over the past few years, I have found a strong admiration for Studio Ghibli films. With beautiful, clean animation and stories that take on metaphysical commentaries, the films present stories in exciting yet classical manners that are different from American storytelling. While the most recent film that I have seen is Howl's Moving Castle, I continue to be enjoy the output. It is quality escapism to the likes that not even the big blockbusters can compete. Of course, majority of my efforts are describing my familiarity with Hayao Miyazaki films.

To an extent, Studio Ghibli is synonymous with Hayao. I am well aware that there is more than one director at the studio, though none come to mind as fruitfully. I couldn't tell you who directed the Secret World of Arrietty last year, but because of the brand, I trust that the film will be great. Thus is the case for Goro's second feature From Up on Poppy Hill. I suspect that due to his relative nature that he should be just as good in some respects to his father.

Before we continue, let me share with you the trailer as to get a better understanding of the story:

Looks pretty solid. According to IMDb, the plot is:
"A group of Yokohama teens look to save their school's clubhouse from the wrecking ball in preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics."
Never one to make a story simple, this at least sounds like a very promising narrative. The trailer also looks to be up to par with Studio Ghibli standards and along with being a Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) selection, it has the reputation necessary. Of course, the disadvantage is that there hasn't been a film in the studio's catalog that has garnered a lot of attention since Ponyo, which may largely be due to the fact that it was Hayao's last complete project. I cannot argue that the other projects are better or worse, but from the sheer fact that it has some festival circuit prestige, it is at least worth a gander.

Of course, majority of movies coming out in March will probably not get recognized. While animated films have more of the advantage of being few and far between in comparison to live action, this may be the very reason that the Secret World of Arrietty suffered from a lack of nomination. With a February release date, it came out to little fanfare and essentially got ignored for a list of American films, though while mostly good, lacked variety that this category has been known to feature. The one advantage is that the competition so far this year doesn't seem to be that great with titles like Despicable Me 2, The Croods, Epic, and Monsters University, it doesn't seem to be a great year.

While it is possible that due to the limited output that the category will shrink to the minimal three slots, I would enjoy seeing the category get all five slots, but go international. This was most relevant to when only two years ago, they nominated Chico & Rita and A Cat in Paris: two films that nobody knew about before their nomination. The benefit of the Best Animated Feature category is while they may not win against heavyweights like Pixar or Dreamworks Animation, they will receive more notice and are more likely to receive limited theatrical releases and a boost in home viewing sales.

That is essentially the best right now that From Up on Poppy Hill can expect. True, it is possible that this film can pull a surprise upset and become a smash hit. This is only a limited release, but maybe in a few weeks, provided it ever receives a wider release, could get enough praise to at least make it to contention. There are many reasons that this film stands a chance. One of the notable reasons is because it is a sad-looking year. Another is that it hits on a few familiar beats that the Academy seem to love. 

Chariots of Fire
In the 80's, director Hugh Hudson's Olympic drama Chariots of Fire won Best Picture. That is all the more impressive when you consider that it beat out On Golden Pond and Raiders of the Lost Ark. While it was in the same vein as prior winners like Rocky in terms of triumphant underdog stories, it also had a benefit of being about the Olympics. While the ceremony only comes every four years, it is a perfect time frame to develop a story of countries finding ways to have international pride. While no film on the subject of Olympics have won since, it is only a testament that the Academy has a soft spot for sports and the ultimate sports event only seems like a giveaway in terms of recognition.

True, I doubt that From Up on Poppy Hill will even come close to being as gratuitous on the Olympics subject. However, the Academy also does love stories of overcoming obstacles. As recent as this year's Best Picture winner Argo, they have awarded films in which heroes are made in dire straits. The story about saving a clubhouse from being torn down almost feels like a silly concept, but add in the studio's penchant metaphysical commentary and chances at deeper subtext, then it is possible that it will elevate this film to a more recognizable scale. Also, it would be a triumph for Studio Ghibli, as it will finally have a Best Animated Feature nomination not directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 

It is too early to predict if it will actually hold any momentum. However, with the studio's previous two nominations and one win for Spirited Away, it isn't too far fetched to conceive of this happening. However, it is facing off against Monster's University, a sequel to Monsters Inc., a film that competed in the first year of Best Animated Feature. While it is dependent on the film, it is possible that it could win on the bias that it is Pixar and that it is a pity Oscar. Over the past decade, Monsters Inc. has held a higher reputation than that year's winner Shrek in ever way except capital. Like Martin Scorsese winning Best Director for The Departed, this feels like the Academy will recognize the film solely as an apology for ignoring the first one. This may sound foolish, but I predict this logic will become more prominent upon the film's release.

From Up on Poppy Hill may suffer from a March release date, but it benefits from having the Studio Ghibli attachment and a lack of strong competition. All either franchises or terrible looking lowbrow features, this may be another year where international animation will be recognized. One can only hope that this happens, if just not to give us another example of Pixar bias with the unjustified win this year for Brave. Also, it would be nice to know that Studio Ghibli is still relevant after a few years of absence from the circuit. If you don't believe me, just watch Spirited Away or Howl's Moving Castle and justify why the rest aren't nominated as often.

Will Studio Ghibli get lucky this year? Will the themes of the Olympics boost the potential of the success? Is this going to be the first non-Hayao Miyazaki film to get a Best Animated Feature nomination?

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