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A collective sigh may have been heard at many a viewing party a couple of weekends ago, when the Academy handed the Best Animated Feature Oscar to the conventional comforts of Pixar's "Brave" over the zappy multimedia invention of "Wreck-It Ralph," or the scrappy postmodernism of Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie." But it was easy enough to see what voters were going for: in a field thick with bristly new textures, the gentle, old-fashioned storytelling and comparative visual serenity of the Highland fairytale was that much more reassuring an option.
Not among the nominees, though it was on the category's shortlist, was "From Up on Poppy Hill" -- the latest from animation stalwarts Studio Ghibli. Only twice in the 12-year history of the animated feature Oscar has one of their films made the cut, yet Ghibli occupies a comparably elevated position to Pixar in the imaginations of animation enthusiasts. In an age where crude computer-animated money-grabbers are a dime a dozen, they're a trusted brand that stands for wholesome, attentive storytelling, meticulous artistry and genuine wonder.
Ghibli is the handmade arthouse alternative where Pixar is the state-of-the-art multiplex titan, but both are seen as the standard bearers -- small wonder that both companies have strong ties to Disney. (And, indeed, to each other -- it was Pixar head John Lasseter, after all, who spearheaded the English-language version of Ghibli's Oscar-winning phenomenon "Spirited Away" back in 2001.)
"From Up on Poppy Hill" finally hits US screens this Friday, nearly two years after bowing in Japan -- given the vagaries of distribution and translation, Studio Ghibli's films have a history of protracted travel. A mellow period piece following two high school students as they defy the authorities to defend their clubhouse, it's a low-key work from a company best known for more extravagant, though equally pure-hearted, fantasies -- many of them stemming from the imagination of veteran animation master Hayao Miyazaki (who is, indeed, a screenwriter on "Poppy Hill").
The film's release seemed as good an occasion as any to celebrate the still-flourishing creativity of Studio Ghibli with a Top 10 list, taking into account their gentlest, most kid-friendly work ("My Neighbor Totoro"), the sophisticated cross-generational fantasy of, say, "Princess Mononoke," and their more recent melting-pot adaptations of Anglocentric fantasy ("Arrietty," "Howl's Moving Castle").
Side note: As I look down the 10 Studio Ghibli favorites that I've assembled in the gallery below, however, I realize how much home video and DVD have been responsible for planting the Studio Ghibli library in the popular imagination: everything here is pure cinema, yet I regret how few titles here I've had a chance to see on the format they deserve. Alternative animation house GKIDS took over from Disney as Studio Ghibli's US distribution ally in 2011, acquiring the theatrical rights to 14 of their titles -- "Grave of the Fireflies" is due for a 25th anniversary re-release later this year, but let's hope there's more of that to come.
Meanwhile, check out my top 10 Studio Ghibli films in the gallery below, and chime in with your own in the comments. What's missing? What are you most pleased to see? And which are you keen to catch up with?
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