Review: “When Marnie Was There”

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When Marnie Was There seems aware of its place as the legendary Studio Ghibli’s final movie for the foreseeable future. Focusing on a quiet, mopey tween, this addition to the Japanese animation studio’s illustrious filmography takes its sweet time achieving its intended emotional goals. It’s like the studio is just standing in the doorway, apprehensive to say goodbye. Though the movie’s leisurely, introspective pacing may prove too slow for some, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi is eventually successful in evoking entwined feelings of melancholia and hopefulness.

Asthmatic and deeply alienated from the rest of the world, twelve-year-old Anna is sent on an extended fresh-air vacation to the countryside with friendly, yet biologically-distant relatives. The first section of the film follows Anna as she sulks about and quietly observes her environs, which are as predictably beautiful as in any Ghibli picture. Though the visuals are not as varied or imaginative as a Miyazaki film, each frame is dense with detail and color. While the film’s tone is either gloomy or overly sentimental, at the very least the world is always a joy to look at.

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The plot ramps up, or rather shambles forward, as Anna comes across a strange mansion, where she meets a blonde foreigner named Marnie. They form a friendship, one that inexplicably means a lot to Anna, though the chemistry between the two characters remains woefully undercooked throughout. Why Anna likes Marnie so much is meant to be part of the mystery and the importance of this is revealed by the end, but for a good portion of the film it just comes off as vague.

What does become clear rather quickly is the film’s intriguing use of magical realism. It’s a much lighter form of fantasy than the grand, spectacular visions of Ghibli’s most well-known films, but is an intriguing angle for an otherwise boilerplate story. Unfortunately, instead of elevating the movie beyond pouty teen melodrama, the fantastical elements (without spoiling anything) end up being rather unimaginative and predictable in their utilization.

I found myself waiting patiently for the main friendship to feel as poignant as the movie clearly wanted it to be. I admit I was close to giving up hope. But, almost out of nowhere, the ending of the movie manages to be genuinely touching and lingers on the mind. Though the exploration of the film’s themes and its main twist are as blunt as could be, the execution in the last act, and the believable change that Anna’s character goes through goes a long way to selling the idea that all of the meandering scenes and underdeveloped characters from earlier were building up to something meaningful after all.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

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