Out in the marsh where the sandpipers wade
And the reeds allow breezes to bend every blade,
Visions appear in the moonlight and fade
And leave witnesses with a curious scare.
Some think they’re nothing but eyes playing tricks,
And others fear ghosts have escaped from the Styx,
But some explore further with sorrows to fix
And find answers they didn’t know would be there.
MPAA rating: PG
Studio Ghibli has been crafting outstanding animations for the last three decades, and now that co-founder Hayao Miyazaki is officially retired (again), it looks as if its present hiatus may be permanent. Before the hiatus, though, the studio gave us one more Ghibli gift in When Marnie Was There. Is it among the best Ghibli has to offer? No, but it still has a magical and earnest quality that can hold fast with the likes of Porco Rosso and The Secret World of Arrietty (also directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi).
Based on Joan G. Robinson’s 1965 YA novel, which is one of Miyazaki’s favorites, When Marnie Was There is also one of Ghibli’s more mature works, not in a graphic sense like Princess Mononoke, but in an emotional sense. Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub) is a deeply troubled girl who keeps all of her griefs inside. As she says, she hates herself, for having asthma, for not fitting in at school, for not feeling at home with her foster parents. When she is sent to the countryside to live with friendly relatives, she remains uncomfortably stoic until she encounters a rundown mansion and the mysterious blonde girl Marnie (Kiernan Shipka) who only appears to her. When Anna crosses the tidal marsh to the mansion, she seems to step back in time, and their friendship grows, allowing Anna to regain her emotions and her self-confidence.
Many Ghibli films are leisurely paced, and this is no exception. The beginning takes time in establishing the characters: the nosy but nice would-be friend, the laconic neighborhood fisherman, the habitual painter fond of Marnie’s mansion. This community is merely a quaint backdrop for the central friendship and mystery between Anna and Marnie. The slowness of the mystery taxes the patience more than the film overall, but luckily there is a payoff, even if the line between dreams and reality becomes more ambiguous over time.
Some comments on the film have considered the girls’ bond in a romantic context with words like “infatuation,” and there were times that I was wondering where exactly their relationship was going. By today’s standards, when two twelve-year-olds meet secretly and dance in the moonlight and express their love, romance is assumed over friendship, while the opposite probably would have been true in the past. Perhaps modern sensibilities have colored people’s perceptions, like the humorous assumptions on Sherlock or the way some people mistake Sam and Frodo’s brotherly camaraderie in The Lord of the Rings for longing. Ultimately, the girls are meant to be only friends, yet the solving of the mystery reveals that their connection is indeed deeper than first thought. Actually, the revelation casts certain scenes in a much more tender and meaningful light, with subtle psychological details unseen in most Ghiblis. (Note the doll that Anna holds during a painful flashback.)
Though it’s not obvious at first, Anna’s greatest misery is being ignored or not wanted. Even the nicest people who seem to pay her attention are easily distracted, leaving her with nothing but personal distaste. Is Marnie merely the subconscious product of her desire for attention or a supernatural answer to it? By the end, it doesn’t really matter. Wishing to belong is nothing new in family films, but When Marnie Is There supplies a satisfying reply with more realistic resonances than most. With so much emotional depth, it’s unfortunate that the film’s visual style can’t quite match it. It has its fair share of memorable Ghibli-style scenes (a moonlit rowboat, wading through a rising tide), but its beauty just doesn’t compare with their best. Though Marnie has earned a nomination for Best Animated Feature, Inside Out is still a shoo-in. Despite this, When Marnie Is There is a bittersweet swan song for one of the great animation studios.
Best line: (Anna, watching her classmates) “In this world, there’s an invisible magic circle. There’s an inside, and an outside. Those people are inside the circle, and I’m outside.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2016 S. G. Liput
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