The themes of friendship, love, loneliness and depression are strong in Studio Ghibli’s latest film When Marnie Was There. It’s a deeply emotional film, one that takes special interest in its young protagonist, following the Ghibli fashion of allowing its young female leads to be more than what meets the eye.
When Marnie Was There follows Anna, a young girl who’s sent to spend the summer with her relatives in a coastal town due to her asthma and anxiety. Her adoptive mother is hoping that the fresh air and calm atmosphere will do her some good, knowing little about what’s plaguing Anna’s emotional state. Anna is shy and has trouble making friends until she comes across the mysterious Marnie, who lives out in an old mansion, deep within the marsh. The two become fast friends, divulging their deepest secrets to one another. They’re kindred spirits, and Anna’s health improves when they’re together. As the film continues, we learn more about Marnie’s backstory, along with Anna’s secrets, as Anna becomes more and more intrigued by her mysterious friend.
The significance laid on a central female friendship is integral to this film’s success. Anna on her own is already a strong character, but putting the two together creates the heart of the film. It’s remarkably moving, making us care deeply for Anna’s well-being. She’s a relatable protagonist, and after having seen Pixar’s Inside Out, I’m pleased to see that there will be two movies marketed towards kids making their rounds with a well-rounded female protagonist at their center.
The film hits some snags with the narrative contrivances in the third act. The first and second act beautifully set up Anna’s world and how Marnie enters it, how integral she becomes in Anna’s day to day happiness, and how the possibility of Marnie being an imaginary friend means very little to Anna. We experience Anna’s sadness, her belief that she’s unwanted and unloved, and we see her creativity and how she, like any other little girl, has it in her to be cruel if she’s put on the defense. She is so thoroughly constructed that it’s a shame to see the storyline unravel a bit toward to the end.
What stands out is how unlike most other Ghibli films When Marnie Was There is, all the while holding on to the themes that made it such a treasured studio. Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arriety), the film has a gothic atmosphere, playing out almost like a ghost story would. Clouds roll into Ghibli’s typically blue skies, and the marsh where most of the film is located is deeply saturated in grays, making it so that Marnie’s blonde hair stands out even more as a beacon for Anna to wonder about. The film is steeped in melancholy, with Takatsugu Muramatsu’s score striking the perfect balance of eerie and romantic, swelling at the climatic moments and underlying the emotional moments that tug at our heartstrings. The animation is gorgeous and fluid, and the landscapes drawn are as lush and detailed as ever.
It’s not the finest film that Studio Ghibli has ever made, and if I had to pick, The Wind Rises or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya would have made for stronger films as the company’s last before their hiatus, but it’s one that speaks to all that makes Ghibli wonderful, even with its shortcomings. The willful female protagonist whose flaws are apparent but honest, the emotional through-line, the astounding hand-drawn animation. When Marnie Was There has moments of greatness that rival some of the best moments in any of the studio’s other films, it’s just the overall package that doesn’t entirely live up.
Still, it’s a strong film, and one that with its female friendship at its core makes it a must watch for any younger viewers. The themes of sadness and insecurity are significant for anyone who has ever gone through adolescence (or who is human and still experiences those feelings). When Marnie Was There is soulful, intimate, and, as one of the last films from the wildly influential studio, a must-see for fans.
When Marnie Was There is out in a limited release now.