When Marnie Was There (2014) Movie Review

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Some of those who know me, know that the last 8-9 years would have been a bit different if I hadn’t been introduced to Studio Ghibli in Christmas 2007, and tonight I experienced a bittersweet sense of closure when I watched what is (so far…I really hope it’s just ‘so far’) the last Studio Ghibli feature film. Yes, it came out in Japan back in 2014. But the Blu-Ray release only happened in the UK yesterday (3rd October), and luckily for me, it arrived that afternoon. 80% of my plans were be completely dropped to watch it. Metal Gear Solid 5, Uncharted 3 and Parks And Recreation – these didn’t happen last night. This is what a Studio Ghibli film is capable of. It allows you to step back from busy play time, and experience something beautiful. So…When Marnie Was There

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Who directed Studio Ghibli’s Arrietty in 2010) and based on English author Joan G. Robinson’s book of the same name (which follows a Ghibli trademark of incorporating Hayao Miyazaki’s anglophilia into their films), our story revolves around Anna Sasaki, a 12 year old girl living with foster parents who is easily 1 of the most introverted and shy female leads that the Studio has ever produced (Most Ghibli women are either extroverted and/or quiet and powerful). Unhappy with her foster parents and not telling them her feelings, Anna suffers an asthma attack when a teacher is about to look at her drawing, but is then distracted by a kid getting hurt on the jungle gym. The doctor treating Anna’s asthma suggests to her adopted mother, Yoriko, that Anna should get fresh air, so Yoriko sends Anna to the countryside to stay with her relations, Setsu and Kiyomasa Oiwa. While there, Anna finds an abandoned house off the marsh, which comes alive after 5pm and can be walked to when the tide is down. This is were she meets a young blonde girl named Marnie.

Now to talk about what’s there.

The animation is excellent. Truly excellent. But it doesn’t have Miyazaki’s presence, and it shows. Since starting retirement number 6 in 2013 (Yes, he has retired 5 times before that), you can sense a difference in Ghibli’s work, even in the animation department (Since Miyazaki would have applied himself in some way to many Ghibli films he didn’t direct, whether it be as a writer or producer or planner or animator). At times it seems a little choppier, and it doesn’t have any animated scenes that make you really go “wow!” (By Ghibli standards) outside of perhaps the opening scene.  Ghibli’s standards in this area are, for me, particularly high.  So if any other anime studio produced this, it would receive 5 stars.  In this case, it would be a little less.  Although, to add some bittersweet information, this was the last film to be completed by long-time Studio Ghibli animator Makiko Futaki, who sadly passed away earlier this year.

The Art style is as beautiful as always. Top-notch from Studio Ghibli and as good looking as their best work.  Everything had the right mood, the colours were extremely vibrant, and the textures of decaying architecture, as well as nature remain a legendary part of the Studio’s presentation.

The music was not done by Joe Hisaishi, because once again, Hisaishi was Miyazaki’s first choice composer.  This time it was done by Takatsugu Muramatsu, whose work has mostly been in TV Dramas in Japan more than anime.  He did a very good job in creating a lovely, but quite unremarkable score.  The highlight of the music though, comes in the form of Priscilla Ahn’s song “Fine On The Outside”, which has lyrics that are practically a song about Anna and/or Marnie.  A truly beautiful singer-songwriter piece, and a haunting way to end the film, as it’s capable of bringing tears.

The Voice Acting has some interesting choices in the english dub, including Hailee Steinfeld (remake of True Grit with Jeff Bridges) voicing Anna, Kiernan Shipka (Sally Draper in Madmen) voicing Marnie, John C Reilly as Kiyomasa Oiwa (Yoriko’s relation), Ellen Burstyn (Sara Goldfarb in Requiem Of A Dream) as Marnie’s Nan, Geena “My face is awesome, even now” Davis as Yoriko, and Kathy Bates as Mrs Kadoya, to name the most well known actors on this side of the language barrier.  I thought they did a very good job in selection, and the voices were very well done.

The characters are quite a range, with some common staples here and there.  Much like other Ghibli films, there are very few genuinely antagonising characters outside of Marnie’s Nan and her Maids, in fact everybody seems capable of being lovely if they haven’t been shown in that light in this film.  What’s most important though is Anna as a protagonist – whose transformation is done especially well within the context of an extremely introverted young girl who questions whether anybody actually wants or loves her.  One other thing that can be pointed out is Marnie’s character design…She is basically Alice from Alice In Wonderland, and she possesses some traits that are similar to that character.  Such as her desire to escape her own world.  Do I have a favourite character?  Yes – that would be Sayaka, a little bespectacled girl voiced by Ava Acres (The little girl in the infamous Agents Of SHIELD season 2 episode “Melinda”).  She adds a bit of fun to the scenes she appears in.

The story provides a very solid mystery, allowing us to ask ourselves whether Marnie is an imaginary friend, or if there’s something much deeper.  You’ll have to see it for yourself.

The themes in When Marnie Was There…wow…this is a film that really knows where to hit you. Because a major theme in this film is “quiet rejection”. Even if you have loving parents or foster parents, you can still feel rejected. And even if classmates in school aren’t bullying you, you can still feel rejected by default, simply by them not providing invitations or inclusion in conversation circles. Also the fact that Anna is a Japanese girl with naturally blue eyes, she constantly feels “different” or “out of place”. Her rejection from the world around her is passive, rather than active.  And her relationship with Marnie, and in time, those around her, gradually transform her into a different person. In its own way, I would call this film a love letter made film-reel. The message it sends is that people are to be loved. Even if they don’t feel it.

Would I recommend When Marnie Was There? Yes! This is 1 of those films that transcends barriers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like anime, this is a film that would appeal to anybody. Because it’s a very human film about a very real problem that everybody experiences in some form or another.  It’s not Studio Ghibli’s best film, but it’s still absolutely excellent.  And so far, it’s a good note to (hopefully not completely) end on in Studio Ghibli’s legendary run.

Animation: ****3/4

Art Style: *****

Music: ****1/4 (***** for Priscilla Ahn’s song at the end)

Voice Acting: ****1/2

Characters: ****1/2

Story: ****1/2

Themes: *****

Overall: ****1/2

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