When Marnie Was There - Review image

When Marnie Was There - Review

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When Marnie Was Thereis the final film from Studio Ghibli, the Greatest Animation Studio Ever according to... well, me. I've been a huge fan of the Japanese animators for around a decade now, dazzled by the vivid and strange imaginations of their directors and entranced by the wonder of their stories. Those who haven't seen a Ghibli might be faintly aware of films such as My Neighbour Totoro or Spirited Away, or they'll have heard the name of the studio's most prolific director Hayao Miyazaki. Those, like me, who have been bitten by the bug could wax lyrical for hours about the beauty of their animation and discuss the various merits of their more obscure films. They've made rich, strange fantasy films (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; Princess Mononoke) and moving, real-world dramas that still carry some magic (Only Yesterday; Whisper of the Heart). They've also made films everywhere in between these two extremes.

When Marnie Was there is an adaptation of a British children’s novel from the ‘60s and lands towards the gently fantastical side of their canon. For fans, watching it comes with the bittersweet sensation of knowing that this is the last film you will see by such a consistently brilliant studio. The studio has wrapped up production for the foreseeable future and one of the last great bastions of hand-drawn animation has fallen. For those previously unaware of the film-makers, this could be the perfect introduction to their work. Whether you are a novice or a merch-wearing devotee, it’s a stunning piece of storytelling that proves the studio never lost its power, even at the very end.

It tells the story of a girl named Anna who is suffering from something like depression, although it is never explicitly named as such, and who is struggling to connect to her adopted parents. Already the plot synopsis might indicate that this is a film for mature children – it deals with big themes such as loss and rejection in nuanced and moving ways. Some kids will really take to it, but for others this is the quality meal you try and feed your kids when they want the McDonalds of Minions. Anna goes to stay with family friends in a rural part of Hokkaido in Japan (relocated from Norfolk in the book) in the hope that the clear air will help with her asthma. Her adoptive parents also want the new setting to cheer her up a little.

Once there, Anna still finds it hard to fit in. That is, until she meets the mysterious girl Marnie who lives in the elegant manor house on the other side of a tidal inlet. Here’s where the story hints at a more supernatural element. The majority of Ghibli films deal in some way with the spiritual, often rooted in Japanese tradition, using the landscape of folkloric imagination to explore universal and deep themes. So Spirited Away deals with dislocation through a story of slime gods and dragon spirits, while The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a fable of moon goddesses and cloud Buddhas that asks what it means to live on this earth.

When Marnie Was There is definitely not as culturally rooted as those two stories and the fantasy elements are woven very subtly into the narrative. To give away any more would be to ruin part of the joy of watching the tale unfold. What does become swiftly apparent, however, is that this is a film about belonging, adoption and family. Anna’s malaise stems from her belief that she belongs nowhere, that she has no true family. When she connects with Marnie she feels a bond as tight as sisterhood and the two become the closest of friends. Their friendship is tenderly portrayed, Marnie the impulsive and apparently carefree one, Anna the one ridden with anxiety. The way they form an almost symbiotic connection to each other is the main engine of the story – expect nothing in the way of action sequences or melodramatic romances here.

Anyone familiar with Studio Ghibli will be unsurprised to learn that When Marnie Was There is spectacularly animated. If anyone were foolhardy enough to tell me that animation doesn’t constitute real cinema, this would be one of my first articles in a spirited defense of the medium. Every frame is immaculately lit, with lanterns and moonlight dappling the night scenes to create a woozy, ethereal atmosphere. The studio has often animated the spectacular, from flying castles to bombing raids in World War II. Here, however, their formidable skills are put to something far more stately and restrained, but the impact is no less impressive. It’s almost enough to simply succumb to the beauty of the film.

Ultimately, however, the animation exists to serve the story and it does so beautifully. This quietly powerful tale isn’t suitable for all children, but it is an excellent route into discussing the important and universal themes of loss and familial love. There’s an emotional complexity to When Marnie Was There that is resolutely Ghibli – you won’t find such graceful notes in even the best Disney films.

The heart of the film speaks of the importance of understanding the unique love that family can bring. Anna is disconnected and deeply unhappy because she doesn’t fully grasp how much she is loved. Forget emotionally mature children, most adults need to wrestle with these themes. When Marnie Was There is not a traditional piece of storytelling, nor does it pander to the younger demographic for whom it is made. It treats its audience, both young and old, with respect and intelligence. In that, it’s typical of a Studio Ghibli film, proving why the Japanese masters will be missed so much by cinephiles around the world.

When Marnie Was There is released on June 10th.

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