When I realized I would be in Japan while the latest Studio Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There (Omoide no Maanii), was in theaters, I was thrilled. The last time I saw a Ghibli film in Japan was Ponyo, which was gorgeously animated but ultimately a little disappointing for me, so I wanted to see if Ghibli could outdo some of their more recent mediocre affairs. While When Marnie Was There‘s premise of a young sick girl who goes out to the country and becomes friends with another, rather mysterious, girl didn’t seem all that enticing from a plot synopsis point of view, I went in hopeful that I would be getting another dose of Ghibli’s magic on the big screen, well before the film aired in the rest of the world.
When Marnie Was There excels in subtlety through its depiction, and ultimately, transformation, of the melancholy young protagonist Anna. An orphan, she suffers from health problems and an introverted personality that have resulted in her not making many friends, nor opening up to her adopted mother. In an attempt to change Anna’s scenery and hopefully kickstart her health, her mother sends her to rural Hokkaido to live with some relatives over the summer break. It’s here that Anna meets the magical Marnie, who lives what is said to be an abandoned mansion. As their relationship grows and Anna learns more and more about mysterious building, she starts to question who, or what, Marnie is.
The film is based on a British book by the same name, but I wasn’t familiar with the story going into the movie. I’ll get my major gripe about When Marnie Was There out of the way immediately, though: I thought the film was a total drag. And by that, I not only mean it was disappointing overall, but it literally dragged plot and pacing-wise, making me wish they cut off 15 minutes (it clocked in at 103 minutes). The major plot reveal felt excessively obvious quite early on, so it made Anna’s personal journey feel like even more of a slog. As the film crawled along, I found myself hoping she’d just hurry up and figure things out so we could both move on with our lives.
I imagine if you know the plot of the book, it’s even more frustrating to sit through unless you have extremely fond memories of the relationship between Anna and Marnie. I hate to say it, but Roy Blakely was right:
I guess I should see that Marnie movie now which I believe is about two girls who say each other’s names for 90 minutes
— Roy Blakely (@kotowari) August 4, 2014
I wish I could say the film was saved by Ghibli’s trademark animation, but even that fell flat for me. Granted, their work is always beautiful, but there were no details or particular scenes that stood out to me for their animation in any way. On the other hand, Miyazaki’s final film, The Wind Rises (another Ghibli excursion I didn’t really like in the end) had a number of sequences that were memorable if for nothing more than their breathtaking animation, which I can’t say about any aspect of Marnie.
If I sound really down on When Marnie Was There, do know that it really does pain me to be so critical of Ghibli. I, like many of you probably reading this, grew up on Ghibli films and consider the studio to be revolutionary for Japanese filmmaking and animation. But, sadly, Marnie could not hold my interest, though I did enjoy the care with which Anna’s personality and mannerisms were portrayed. The Hokkaido setting was also appreciated, but I simply didn’t feel it was animated with as much attention to detail as some of Ghibli’s past features. However, I’m willing to admit that my overall perception of the film may have been colored by my dissatisfaction with the story, so it might be worth a rewatch where I focus my attention on the animation. Honestly, though, I don’t know if I could sit through it again.
I left the theater wondering who Marnie is for – I doubt it will be able to hold a child’s attention, and western fans who haven’t read the book are apparently think the film’s Japanese trailer makes Marnie and Anna’s relationship seem more queer than it actually is. (I could write a whole article on this, but I’d rather not) Older fans such as myself may appreciate the subtle storytelling and melancholy mood, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll be left wishing Ghibli would go back to their more quirky, fantastical roots as the credits roll. Perhaps if you have a penchant for slow-paced, character driven flicks and don’t go in expecting a classic Ghibli production, you may enjoy When Marnie Was There more than I did.