Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura and Toshio Suzuki. Written by Keiko Niwa, Masashi Andō, and Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Release date: May 22, 2015.
After Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement, it was declared that Studio Ghibli would be taking a hiatus following the release of The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There. That hiatus had been reported as short, long, or indefinite, with many speculating that the latter of those two films could be the final entry in the Ghibli ?uvre. Well, if that winds up being the case, the studio’s punctuation mark is a strong one.
The story being told here is that of 12-year-old Anna (voice of Sara Takatsuki in Japanese, Hailee Steinfeld in English), a schoolyard loner who suffers from asthma and maybe depression. She has an attack and is ordered by doctors to spend the summer with relatives in the countryside under the belief that the clean air will do her some good. She spends her time sketching, eating delicious food, and playing with Marnie (Kasumi Arimura/Kiernan Shipka).
Who exactly is Marnie? That’s for you to find out. Maybe she’s real. Maybe she’s a ghost. Maybe she’s a dream. She certainly has qualities of all three. Anna and Marnie go through several events together, always at nighttime, over the course of the film. During the day, we explore the volatility of Anna’s emotions. It plays out somewhat like a mystery – unfortunately complete with the expository “wrap everything up” monologue at the end – somewhat like a coming-of-age story, and also as just a series of events in which two girls learn about each other and become friends. It’s genuinely sweet, and just a slight bit sad.
It’s also incredibly slow-paced. That’s not a problem, but a description. Some people can’t handle these types of movies. Anna’s story unfolds at a meticulous pace. We are slowly granted access into her mind as the story progresses. Often times, very little happens; the key is to study the faces of the characters, with the hand-drawn animation providing ample details even without dialogue. One of the more intriguing characters in the film only has a couple of lines. Everyone we meet is interesting and feels fleshed out, and it’s because of the slow pace that this happens.
Even if the story is taking too long to get to a certain point for you, you’re always going to have something to look at in terms of the visuals.
Because of the pacing, the ending feels like it happens too suddenly. Summer does indeed end – that is no spoiler – and we want our questions about Marnie and Anna answered. The film does this, but does so in a way that feels cheap and contrived – and also something you’re likely to figure out way before it tells you, if only because it’s the most logical way to tie everything up. Everything up to the ending was given time to breathe and to progress naturally, so it’s a bit of a shame that the payoff is a couple of minutes of expository monologue.
Given that this is a Studio Ghibli film, you should come in expecting gorgeous visuals. In that regard, When Marnie Was There delivers in spades. The animation is fantastic, the backgrounds are all works of art, and the way that water and grass moves is tremendous. Even if the story is taking too long to get to a certain point for you, you’re always going to have something to look at in terms of the visuals. The director is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, here taking the director role for the second time – the first being with The Secret World of Arrietty – and he’s made a film that simply looks incredible. If you’re any sort of animation fan, you owe it to yourself to see When Marnie Was There simply for its visual prowess.
Think about how many films tackle the emotional volatility of a 12-year-old girl. Consider how many of them repeat a line like “I hate myself.” When Marnie Was There might be a simple story, but the story it’s telling is well worth watching. You don’t get these types of stories often, and when we do, they’re worth celebrating. This is a film that will speak to the pre-teen girls in the audience, but will also provide enough for the adults. Like most of Pixar‘s catalog, it’s a family movie, not a children’s movie; it’s appropriate for everyone, and everyone can gain something from it.
When Marnie Was There might not be the strongest or most exciting entry into the Studio Ghibli canon, but as the potential swansong – and let’s hope it’s not – it fills the role perfectly fine. It’s a slow burn, it delivers significant depth to its characters, and it’s absolutely gorgeous from start to finish. It wraps up too quickly, it is a bit too slow at times, and its melodramatic approach to the story might be tough for some to handle, but for those willing to stick with it, it’s a rewarding watch.
Bottom Line: It may potentially be the last film from Studio Ghibli, and it’s a pretty solid one.
Recommendation: This is a story worth hearing that’s told in a film worth watching.[rating=3.5]