This review is for the subtitled version of When Marnie Was There. Audiences will be able to choose between the subtitled version and dubbed version (as usual, an all-star lineup including Hailee Steinfeld, John C Reilly, Geena Davis and Vanessa Williams) of the film at the Ritz Bourse. It's hard not to expect perfection from a studio that so generously gave us Spirited Away, Princess Monoake, and the truly magical The Wind Rises, but such are our demands, and thus the cross bared by the artists at Studio Ghibli. When Marnie Was Here is a film similar to The Wind Rises in its earnest and straightforward exploration of its protagonist, Anna (Sara Takatsuki), but despite the gorgeous animation, Marnie lacks much of the majesty and the magic of its predecessors.
Anna is a troubled young girl who enjoys drawing and staying as far away from social interaction as possible. She is an outsider, not so much because her peers find her strange (they might), but more because she is prone to violent outbursts when she feels others are prying into her space. She pushes people away before they are allowed to get too close. She is sent away by her guardian to stay with her extended family in the country where aside from the fresh air curing her frequent asthma attacks, she can gain some perspective on her life away from the usual stressors. As an aside, I love the well-worn trope of the rural retreat-cum-sanatorium in film, and wish whole-heartedly I could give up my daily grind to experience such rejuvenation without much consequence to my reality. Anna soon finds comfort in a friend, Marnie, who exists in a past that haunts Anna in her dreams, but through their friendship she is able to come to terms with herself and find immense joy in discovering the present she now inhabits.
Marnie's narrative is a simple one, with most of the intrigue lying in its exploration of the source of Anna's intense emotions, rather than fantastical creatures and settings. Similar to The Wind Rises, I found the themes in Marnie to be more mature than other films in the Ghibli oeuvre, but while the former maintains its sense of charm and childlike wonder, Marnie wavers in its ability to deliver an emotionally satisfying story. On the one hand, I applaud the handling of Anna, a protagonist who is angry and sympathetic, but also a little unlikeable at first, who grows as a character before our eyes. On the other, I didn't walk away from this film with the sense of awe that I usually feel after a Ghibli film. While I enjoyed Anna's journey, I found the overall story a little thin. It's an intangible quality that while usually present, was lacking here.
What isn't lacking, is the beautiful craftsmanship on display. The animation in Marnie is still on par with the best in the Studio's library, and definitely helps inspire great admiration for the artists behind the film. There are a few intense scenes that are only made better by the artists' extreme attention to detail and crafting the animation to enhance the emotions on display. One such pivotal scene finds Anna in the water, the tide rushing in as Marnie cries to her from her bedroom window. The wind is whipping both characters as they say their tearful goodbyes. It's a scene that is as eery as an apparition and heartbreaking all at once.
There's a lot to like in Marnie, and the film represents a unique perspective not quite seen in other Ghibli films. Since Hayao Miyasaki's departure from the studio, the future is up in the air. I can't see the studio not existing in some form, and despite bumps in the road, change can be a wonderful thing. I just hope the magic isn't completely thrown away in the brush.
When Marnie Was There opens today at the Ritz Bourse.