"far less fantastical that a lot of previous Ghibli works, and when Anna meets Marnie, the lines between dream and reality are blurred"
Studio Ghibli, Japan’s animation powerhouse, is currently on indefinite hiatus following the retirement of co-founder Hayao Miyazaki in 2014. That makes When Marnie Was There, produced two years ago and finally getting a UK release, the studio's final film. On first glance, this film contains all the hallmarks of the Ghibli classics, an introverted young girl trying to find her place in the world, fantastical dreamlike elements, not to mention some beautiful animation. But beneath the surface viewers will find that it lacks some of the magic that could elevate it to top-tier Ghibli.
From the outset, it is clear that our protagonist, 12 year-old Anna, has a deep rooted social anxiety that goes well beyond simply being unable to fit in. She lives in Northern Japan with foster parents and appears to be suffering from depression. Following an incident at school, her foster mother sends her to spend the summer with distant relatives in the country, hoping that a change of scenery might do her good. While there, she discovers an old abandoned mansion in the middle of a marsh, and dreams of meeting a young, blonde girl who lives there. Over time this girl, Marnie, appears to manifest herself in the real world, and the pair strike up a friendship.
The film is far less fantastical that a lot of previous Ghibli works, and when Anna meets Marnie, the lines between dream and reality are blurred. Early on, the film never makes explicitly clear whether Marnie actually exists or not. She talks as if Anna is in fact appearing in Marnie’s dreams, rather than the other way around. The film presents itself as a mystery waiting to be unravelled, but as the film drip-feeds you information and begins to resolve, the final picture that emerges is murky and unintriguing.
When Marnie Was There has none of the wit or joy of the Miyazaki directed Ghibli efforts such as Spirited Away or Ponyo. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi—his second directorial effort after 2011’s Arrietty—takes a much duller approach than the inquisitive, childlike mind of Miyazaki, and this shows especially in Marnie’s slower moments. The confusion surrounding the film’s plot begins to grate, rather than captivate, as time wears on, the film definitely feeling like it could do with being cut down despite only being 100 minutes long.
The animation is, as always, fantastic; nothing less would be expected from Japan’s premier animation studio. The problem here lies in the lack of imaginative storytelling that made Studio Ghibli so famous. If they are to continue making quality films their next generation of filmmakers need to recapture the magic that made the films of Miyazaki and Isao Takahata so fantastic. Until then, perhaps a hiatus is a good idea. As for this film, it’s perfectly passable, but some dull revelations and slow pacing mean that it comes nowhere near the Ghibli standard. If this is the end of the studio, it would be a disappointing way to bow out.