Though the future of Studio Ghibli remains uncertain, if When Marnie Was There ends up being the revered animation house’s swan song, it will make for a fitting final chapter in the studio’s history, if not the outright best one. While the anime art style and visual storytelling that endeared Ghibli to millions is still present, and arguably its strongest yet in terms of consistency, When Marnie Was There is a minor entry compared to the likes of Spirited Away, or even last year’s The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.
All the same, When Marnie Was There’s place among the Ghibli canon is undeniable. It’s at once a sweepingly elegiac melodrama, and a simple children’s fable, one adapted from the Joan G. Robinson novel of the same name. Ghibli stories split the difference between visionary fantasy and earthy realism, often times within the same movie, so the light magical realist elements of Robinson’s novel cozy up nicely to the heavy emotional undertow of director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s retelling.
The movie’s heroine, Anna (Hailee Steinfeld providing the English dub), is a deeply withdrawn pre-teen living in the city of Sapporo. The untimely death of her parents put Anna into foster care at a young age, and the kindness of her adoptive mother (Geena Davis) has done little to abate Anna’s overwhelming sense of detachment from others. The matter is worsened when, shortly before heading to visit her foster aunt and uncle in Kushiro, Anna discovers that her adoption came with a financial incentive from the Japanese government.
It’s from one of Kushiro’s marshy beaches that Anna spies a decrepit mansion, a déjà vu image Anna is drawn to before encountering Marnie (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka), a young girl of the same age. The two quickly become besties, with Marnie barreling past Anna’s reserved exterior that others have heretofore only been able to chip away at. Strange phenomena surrounding the mansion and Marnie cause Anna and the film to question what’s really going on, but not enough to distract from the pair’s blossoming friendship.
The coastal setting and magical realist elements sometimes make When Marnie Was There resemble a modern Nicholas Sparks romance book more than an all-ages children’s novel brought to animated life. Like Kushiro itself, When Marnie Was There can be sleepy and lackadaisical. Plot rarely sets the pace; instead, we track Anna’s journey according to the rotations of the sun and moon through a restless childhood summer. The town is populated by a handful of softly colourful characters, with John C. Reilly and Grey DeLisle bringing pleasant warmth to Anna’s aunt and uncle.
The fits and starts in which Anna sorts through her baggage leave plenty of time in-between for you to roughly project how various secondary characters, like a mute but helpful fisherman, or a friendly portrait artist, will finally enter the picture. Though sharp-eared viewers will know what to expect from the movie’s last, biggest card before it’s played, the whole of the experience has taken on a more precious poignancy by the end. When it comes time for When Marnie Was There to answer the riddles it’s been teasing all movie long, their mechanics are foggy, but the impact is clear.
Anna and Marnie’s enthusiastic relationship is a treat, in part because of the rare time that the animated medium (let alone the live action one) usually sets aside for friendships between young women. Anna’s well-earned angst has a lot to say about the fragile sense of self that kids can develop when growing up in a home that’s not “normal,” and Steinfeld and Shipka bring that vulnerability to bear when needed (it’s in more casual moments that the absence of professional voice talent can be heard). When Marnie Was There’s final moments don’t seek to turn all that on its head; rather, the film manages to maintain its themes, while refining them down to include new, insightful, and even rarer considerations of family and friendship
The Wind Rises made for a satisfying farewell to Ghibli’s resident mastermind Hayao Miyazaki, and When Marnie Was There makes for a similarly apt tribute to the studio’s legacy. Sketches and portraits featured throughout the movie are a subtle reminder of the majesty and beauty Ghibli’s animation brings to When Marnie Was There, should you ever take it for granted. The moment-to-moment emotional tenor can sometimes feel as though it was warped in translation, but the animation is as lifelike in its subtlest movements as the images are painterly in their realism. It’s the little things, like natural ripples in a blanket that form as it’s being folded, or the cascade of water that encircles a submerged foot, that will be just as missed from Ghibli as its imagination, should When Marnie Was There truly be their last story.
The dependably stunning animation from Studio Ghibli should help satisfy anyone not won over by When Marnie Was There's slight but thoughtful tale.