When Marnie Was There is ostensibly Studio Ghibli’s semi-swan song (they’re taking time off for restructuring after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement). But as far as “see you later” movies go, When Marnie Was There doesn’t have the epic, sweeping gravitas of movies like Princess Mononoke or Spirited Away, as Studio Ghibli has swayed away from these in the last few years.
Like The Secret World of Arrietty (a drama about a family who just so happened to be tiny) and The Wind Rises, When Marnie Was There is an introspective meditation on loneliness and grief, with barely a hint of the fantastical themes for which Studio Ghibli is known. While these new themes are an effective match with Studio Ghibli’s distinctive, warm, emotional animation style, it creates a disconnect when a film can’t decide if it wants to focus on narrative or feeling.
Based on the English novel by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There is the story of 13 year old Anna, a tomboy who has no friends at school, a strained relationship with her adoptive parents, and little interest in anything aside from drawing. When a fit of asthma attacks worries her parents, they send her to live with her grandparents in Hokkaido. While there, Anna continues to spend a lot of time by herself, but discovers an old house that seems to be inhabited by a blonde girl named Marnie. Marnie is definitely not a normal girl, and Anna becomes involved in a strange and sad journey to find out her identity.
This is a film that could be called slow–very little happens in the way of action, and the story itself takes quite awhile to actually unfold. But its quietness is its biggest strength, making it a family film devoid of the harsh screeching and garish CGI of today’s typical children’s movies. I always enjoy the animated backgrounds in Studio Ghibli’s films, which are beautifully painterly no matter the setting. When Marnie Was There spends a lot of time within marshes, beaches and forests, and as Anna and Marnie’s friendship builds, we feel as though this gorgeous world belongs only to them. They are free from the rest of the world, which is sometimes confusing and upsetting, and we get the sense that every time they part, they go back to a place they don’t want to be, and that doesn’t want them in return.
The slowness of the film has a slightly bigger detriment, as it makes the end result feel a little distanced from the deep emotion of most Ghibli films and a bit mechanical. The atmosphere of the film itself resonated more deeply with me than the characters, and while we are initially content to enjoy the film as an experience instead of a forward-moving narrative, the pace is occasionally frustrating.
When Marnie Was There is still a far better, more nuanced, and more beautiful film than nearly every family movie being made today, but by no means an essential one to see when compared to other Ghibli productions.
When Marnie Was There is currently screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.