When Marnie Was There (Gkids, PG)

When-Marnie-Was-There 75When Marnie Was There is a fully enjoyable movie.






When-Marnie-Was-There 500

The new Studio Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There, is what most are assuming will be the final feature film the fabled Japanese studio will release. Studio Ghibli is of course the home of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, among others, and has released such modern classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, and Princess Mononoke. Their films are incomparably beautiful and imaginative, and in the past 30-odd years there’s been virtually no better way to spend time sitting in front of a big screen than to watch one of their films.

When Marnie Was There is an odd swan song for the studio, though in fairness I’m not under the impression anyone specifically planned for it to be the studio’s final film. If you’re well versed in Ghibli movies you’ll know what I mean when I say it’s more in line with something like 1995’s Whisper of the Heart than it is Ghibli’s more iconic, fantastical aforementioned releases. Not that this is a bad thing—I’m a big fan of Whisper, too; in my eyes, Studio Ghibli almost never releases a bad picture.

This film, which was directed not by Miyazaki or Takahata but by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (whose only previous director credit at Ghibli comes from 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty), is based on a 1967 novel by the British writer Joan G. Robinson, which novel was something of a YA novel before the idea of such entirely existed. Our main character is not Marnie but Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English-language version and Sara Takatsuki in the original Japanese; both the dubbed and subtitled versions of the film are being released concurrently, like how The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya were in recent years), who is an antisocial, asthmatic 12-year old orphan living in Sapporo, whose only solace comes from her artistic abilities. Her foster parents are perfectly nice, but Anna is alarmed to find that her caregivers receive government payments to keep her as their charge.

After some trouble with her asthma, Anna is sent to live for awhile with her foster mother’s relatives in Kushiro, a rural town, with the idea that it will help with her respiratory problems. Anna is already disengaged from the world in Sapporo and seems to be in danger of becoming more so when taken out of her usual environment. But, soon after she arrives in Kushiro, Anna becomes enchanted with a gorgeous, abandoned local mansion that some locals believe to be resided in by ghosts. One of these ghosts may be the titular Marnie (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka in the American version, Kasumi Arimura in the Japanese), with whom Anna makes friends under mysterious circumstances.

The strong young female lead is a commonality among the majority of Ghibli’s releases, but Marnie’s overall tone isn’t, exactly. One might try to force some comparison between Marnie’s pseudo-ghost story and Spirited Away’s spirit story, but that’s what it would be: forcing. Elsewhere we have orphans aplenty and death and some general unpleasantry many won’t expect of a PG-rated film.

Disclaimers regarding content aside, When Marnie Was There is a fully enjoyable movie. As one would expect of a Ghibli film, it’s absolutely gorgeous. From a storytelling standpoint, Anna is a perfectly relatable character, who, despite being a 12-year old Japanese girl, reminded me a lot of me a great deal of the time. The story, unexpected in tone as it might be, is fairly predictable, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying it any.

Regarding the fact that they’re releasing this film in both its dubbed and subtitled version—here in St. Louis and in most cities running it generally they’ll alternate between the two versions on the same screen in the same venue over the course of any given day. The film was screened for press via an online screener link in its subtitled version, and that’s what this review is based on. I hate to miss the opportunity to see a Ghibli film on the big screen, and though the subtitled version is very likely best choice for viewing the film, it will be no chore for me to go to the theatre and watch this movie again in its dubbed version. | Pete Timmermann

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