×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘When Marnie Was There’

Studio Ghibli's first film without the involvement of either Hayao Miyazaki or Isao Takahata could also be its last.

With:
Voices: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi, Ryoko Moriyama, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Hitomi Kuroki.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3398268/

There are no walking houses, magical forest creatures or one-way trains to the spirit world in “When Marnie Was There,” but that doesn’t mean Studio Ghibli’s latest animated feature — and some fear its last — isn’t brimming over with its own unique sense of enchantment. In this demure Japanese adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s decidedly British ghost story, a withdrawn teen befriends a mysterious blonde girl who may or may not actually exist. Following news of Ghibli maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, this lovely and relatively low-key drama from potential successor Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“The Secret World of Arrietty”) has cast the studio’s own status into question.

A strong box office showing would have gone a long way to encourage the Ghibli team to keep the pipeline open, but local interest has been disappointingly soft for “Marnie” (whose $31.1 million domestic showing pales compared with the $120-220 million Miyazaki pics earn), and the view from the top seems to be that producing quality hand-drawn animation is too labor-intensive to continue long-term. Still, ceasing such activity altogether would be a far greater loss, as this latest project plainly demonstrates.

By no means an essential addition to the Ghibli oeuvre, “Marnie” nevertheless represents yet another splendid escape from the increasingly strenuous glut of computer-animated offerings, this one designed to serve as family entertainment after the more adult-skewing likes of “The Wind Rises” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (and it’s notably the first produced without the involvement of either Miyazaki or Isao Takahata, who directed those two other films, respectively). The story centers on a tomboy named Anna (voiced by Sara Takatsuki) who doesn’t have any close friends at school; nor can she relate to the pretty and popular girls in her class.

Timid yet clearly not without talent, Anna spends her free time drawing. She feels disconnected from her peers and, to some extent, from her foster mother, who frets about Anna’s recent fit of asthma attacks, ultimately sending the young girl to spend some time with her adoptive grandparents in Hokkaido, the large island at the northern tip of the crescent-shaped country — an intriguing substitute for the novel’s rustic Norfolk setting.

There in Hokkaido, Anna finds the freedom to explore the area for herself, which of course is one of the great pleasures of a story like this for audiences patient enough to appreciate the change of pace — one that allows us to revel in the hand-painted backgrounds and carefully rendered flora and fauna. Anna’s solitary perambulations lead her to an abandoned villa overlooking the marsh. There’s something about the way the sun hits the house that serves as its own invitation. When the tide is low, Anna can easily cross to the odd building, and being a naturally curious child, she does exactly that, discovering to her astonishment an unhappy-looking blonde girl in the upstairs window.

Who is this young lady? And why can’t anyone else see her? As far as the locals are concerned, the big house has been abandoned for years, but when Anna approaches, the clock turns back, and the rooms fill with life. Rather than react in fear, Anna is drawn to the mystery, making tentative contact and then fast friends with the strange girl (Kasumi Arimura), whose name is Marnie — or “Mah-nee,” as Anna says it with her soft Japanese accent.

In translating Robinson’s YA novel to the bigscreen, Yonebayashi (whose colleagues call him “Maro”) has worried less about potential cultural differences than those that exist between the two mediums. In essence, he has transposed the story, with its haunted windmill on the hill and sibylline blonde at the window — who could be a ghost or an imaginary friend or something altogether different — halfway around the world, holding fast to a certain Europeanness in the process (certainly, Marnie’s straw-colored hair isn’t standard in Japan). And yet, the essence of Anna and Marnie’s interactions shifts, changing from long, intimate conversations that flower on the page into more visual expressions, such as hand holding, secret sharing and late-night excursions via rowboat, just the two of them.

This sort of girls-only compact is not so uncommon among children’s stories, as seen in last year’s “Frozen” and, to cite an almost certain influence (if not the direct inspiration to make this film), in the same-sex kinships seen in Nippon Animation’s “Anne of Green Gables” TV series, overseen by Ghibli’s own Takahata some 35 years earlier. The young women’s connection is perfectly innocent, and yet, there’s something intense enough about short-haired Anna’s single-minded fixation on her blonde companion — the true basis of which emerges through a series of revelations and reversals late in the film — that could support alternate readings, the way lesbian audiences have embraced Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”

But “Marnie” is about friendship, and the bond that brings Anna around to socializing with other girls her age. Yonebayashi’s open-hearted tale, more than any other Ghibli offering, could conceivably have worked just as well in live-action, and yet the tender story gains so much from the studio’s delicate, hand-crafted approach. Bursting with color and detail, buoyed along and uplifted by pianist Takatsugu Muramatsu’s feather-light score, the film’s traditional animation style gives the already old-fashioned narrative an even more timeless feel. Instead of marking what could be the end of an era, it arrives almost like a classic heirloom, uncovered and restored for contemporary eyes, a reminder of the craftsmanship and care that Ghibli always put into cel animation — once upon a time, when Marnie was there.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'When Marnie Was There'

Reviewed at Walt Disney screening room, Paris, Nov. 27, 2014. (In Kinotayo Film Festival, Paris.) Running time: 103 MIN. (Original title: “Omoide no Marnie”)

Production: (Animated – Japan) A Toho Co. (in Japan)/Walt Disney Co. France (in France) release of a Studio Ghibli, Nippon Television, Dentsu, Hakuhodo DY Media Partners, Walt Disney Japan, Mitsubishi, Toho, KDDI presentation of a Studio Ghibli production. Produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura, Koji Hoshino.

Crew: Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Screenplay, Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, Yonebayashi, based on the novel by Joan G. Robinson. (Color); music, Takatsugu Muramatsu; production designer, Yohei Taneda; animation supervisor, Ando.

With: Voices: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi, Ryoko Moriyama, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Hitomi Kuroki.

More Film

  • Benedict Andrews (L) and US actress

    Kristen Stewart on the 'Insane Gall' of Directors as 'Seberg' Arrives in San Sebastian

    SAN SEBASTIAN – On Friday, Kristen Stewart and Benedict Andrews’ political thriller “Seberg” plays at the 67th San Sebastian Film Festival, where it opens Perlak, a section dedicated to the Spanish premieres of major international films. The star and her director addressed the media prior to the screening in the festival’s first high-profile press conference, [...]

  • Les Miserables

    Ladj Ly's Cannes Prize-Winner 'Les Miserables' Is France's Oscar Submission

    Ladj Ly’s politically charged drama “Les Miserables,” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes, has been chosen by France’s Oscar committee to enter the international feature film race. In one of the most competitive years for French movies, “Les Miserables” beat out Celine Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” the 18th-century-set romance which won [...]

  • David Kehrl neuer Head of Acquisitions

    'Resident Evil's' Constantin Names Acquisitions, International Co-Production Chief

    David Kehrl is to join Constantin Film, Germany’s leading independent movie producer and distributor, as the head of acquisitions and international co-production. He will report to Martin Moszkowicz, chairman of the executive board at Constantin Film, which produces the “Resident Evil” movies. Starting in February, Kehrl will be responsible for the acquisition of international theatrical [...]

  • The Plague Season 2 Spanish TV

    Telefonica, Atresmedia to Create Content Factory Behemoth

    SAN SEBASTIAN  — In a game-changing move for Spanish-language production Telefonica, Europe’s third biggest telco, and Atresmedia, the original co-creators of “La Casa de Papel,” are uniting to create a new joint contents production giant. Aimed at gaining more scale and uniting talent relations – writers, directors and producers – the 50/50 joint venture will [...]

  • KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has

    KKR-Backed German Media Conglomerate Finally Has a Name: Leonine

    The KKR-backed German media company formed through the merger of Tele München Group, Universum Film, i&u TV, and Wiedemann & Berg Film finally has a name: Leonine. The company revealed its moniker Friday, saying that “Leonine” met its criteria of being associated with its home region of Bavaria and Munich, in southern Germany, and of [...]

  • Scattered Night

    San Sebastian New Directors Jihyoung Lee and Kim Sol Talk ‘Scattered Night’

    After taking the Korean Competition Grand Prize and the best acting award (Moon Seung-a) at the Jeonju Intl. Film Festival, “Scattered Night” now heads to San Sebastian’s New Directors selection. An intimate portrayal of a family whose members are deeply isolated from one another, the film follows two parents overwhelmed by their responsibilities, their own [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content