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Thursday
Jun042015

Review: When Marnie Was There

Tim here. No one movie should have to deal with the pressure of being "The Last (Probably) Studio Ghibli Film", but that's inevitably the aura that surrounds When Marnie Was There, the company's 20th theatrical feature, and the second movie directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It's no accident that there's such a big gap in those numbers: one of the biggest problems Ghibli has faced for nearly all of its existence has been cultivating a new generation of directors to take over after Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata finally retired, which is exactly how they found themselves in their current situation.

Even granting all that, and while it's obviously true that When Marnie Was There is rather quiet and small for a farewell gesture from one of the world's premiere movie studios, I find myself entirely satisfied by it anyway. Ghibli has not been, historically, all that concerned with grand narratives and high-stakes storytelling; in fact, one of the best things about the studio for most of its history has been the simplicity and humanity of its films, with their characteristic lack of villains and relative domesticity. With its concerns set no broader than the depression and loneliness of a 12-year-old girl named Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld in the English dub), When Marnie Was There fits right into the tradition of low-key dramas about the inner lives of young women that has included some of Ghibli's best work, from the fantasy My Neighbor Totoro to the more sober realism oft the underappreciated Whisper of the Heart and the unavailable-in-English Only Yesterday.

The situation is a little reminiscent of Totoro, aged up a bit: after a terrible asthma attack, Anna's foster parents send her to live with  their relatives in a small town on the sea. Finding herself in a much slower-paced environment than she's used to, Anna at first has an even harder time fitting in than she ever did back in Sapporo, where she was already an outcast. Her only fascination is with an old mansion across the bay, said to be haunted; while she's attempting to explore it one day, out comes a beautiful blonde girl about her own age, named Marnie (Kiernan Shipka). All signs point to Marnie being not quite of this world, or at least of this time period, but the girls become immensely close, and with Marnie's help, Anna finally learns what it means to have a friend, for the first time in her sad, cut-off life.

"Lonely kid becomes socially outgoing" is the opposite of a fresh idea for a movie, and it wasn't any fresher when Joan G. Robinson's source novel was published in 1967. But even the most overdone concept can still be done well, and that's exactly what happens with When Marnie Was There. Even before its not-very-shocking twist ending comes along to the deepen the emotional stakes of the whole story, the movie has done absolutely stunning, stirring work of first depicting the claustrophobic feeling of an isolated childhood, and then the terror and confusion of finding a way for things to be better. Anna instantly leaps to the top rank of Ghibli's most living, rounded protagonists; she's complex and thorny, self-sabotaging but heartbreakingly sympathetic.

The film's visuals are every bit as appealing as its psychological portraiture, if not quite as overtly thrilling. This is the third essentially "realistic" Ghibli film in a row - that is to say, its thin paranormal elements in no require the medium of animation to achieve them - and unlike last year's Tale of the Princess Kaguya,  the film's style isn't bold enough to stand out on its own. But it is, nonetheless, extremely beautiful, with every background aching with rich colors and shading like a series of oil paintings the characters move against, while the summery lighting is every bit as good as in Whisper of the Heart, the best of Ghibli's visually naturalistic films to date. It's a very lush-looking movie, intense enough to justify the way that the landscape and buildings Anna explores jolt her out of her inward-looking attitude, while also providing no end of worth stills frames that are just plain nice to look at.

So even if it's not the most ambitious project for Ghibli to close its doors with, it's nonetheless supremely well-executed. It is calm, patient, and greatly moving, sophisticated children's entertainment with enough intelligence and top-level craftsmanship that you don't need a child at all to enjoy it. It is typical of everything that has made Ghibli so important for its 28-year history, and as fine a swan song as one could ever hope for. B+

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