Review: ‘When Marnie Was There’ is another exquisite film from Studio Ghibli


“When Marnie Was There” recently came to Buffalo’s North Park Theatre in both its subtitled and dubbed versions, and I was thrilled to review the former. I gave it 3 stars.

“When Marnie Was There” is, in every way, exquisite – exquisitely sad, exquisitely haunting, exquisitely lovely. The latest, and, supposedly, final release from Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation studio might not be a Ghibli classic, but it is a fine creation in every way.

It’s a somber tale, one based on the classic children’s novel by author Joan G. Robinson and directed by the mega-talented Hiromasa Yonebayashi. The director of 2010’s “The Secret World of Arrietty,” Yonebayashi was an animator on such Ghibli classics as “The Wind Rises,” “Ponyo,” “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Spirited Away” and “Princess Mononoke.”

Like those gems – all directed by the legendary Hayao Miyazaki – “When Marnie Was There” is a hand-drawn film of great ambition and stunning beauty. Here is a film about adolescence, friendship and memory centered on a young adult but told without the cheap humor that sinks so many animated efforts.

This is heavy, emo cinema, and that does make for an occasionally exhausting experience. It also lacks the epic scope of Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises” or the poetic significance of recent Ghibli release “The Tale of Princess Kaguya.” But this involving story has its own offbeat charm.

Young Anna is the main character, a smart, sad-eyed young girl whose asthma leads her foster parent to propose a summer in the country. Here, it is hoped, Anna can heal and perhaps emerge from her shell.

She is in many ways a frustrating central character, one who is easy to pity, but also quick to annoy. One scene in particular, when she harshly tells off a good-natured girl, makes it hard to consider her as wise as one might like.

Yet Anna also feels completely believable, gripped with the ebb-and-flow emotions of youth.

Seemingly doomed to outsider status, one day Anna spots a pale, blonde-haired girl in a mansion by the sea. After several attempts, Anna finally meets this strange figure named Marnie.

The girls see something special in the other, and become fast friends. Something is not quite right, however. Marnie seems to disappear often, and continually speaks in dreamy, fanciful ways: “I’m desperate to get to know you,” “You’re my precious secret.” “It’s OK to cry. Just know that I love you.”

Discovering who Marnie is, and why she has entered Anna’s life, is the film’s central mystery. Yonebayashi slowly peels away the story’s many layers before finally laying it bare in “Marnie’s” final stretch.

The answers are not particularly surprising, but they are moving, if a bit overly melodramatic. “I’m sorry, it’s a sad story,” says a character in “When Marnie Was There,” and she ain’t kidding.

This sadness means “Marnie” is not a film for young children. The themes – abandonment, familial loss, adolescent panic – are simply too hefty for little ones. But older children and teens who enjoy introspective drama will swoon over the story of Anna and Marnie.

Note that “Marnie” is being presented at the North Park Theatre in both English dubbed and Japanese language-English subtitled versions. I watched the subtitled version, and would strongly recommend it. Having watched my share of dubbed films, subtitles are almost always preferable.

The lead voices in the Japanese language version – Sara Takatsuki as Anna and Kasumi Arimura as Marnie – give wonderful performances. They may lack the star status of dubbed-version leads Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) as Anna, Kiernan Shipka (“Mad Men”), John C. Reilly, Ellen Burstyn and Kathy Bates. But stars add little to a project like this one.

However you see it, “Marnie” is lovely. Cinephiles around the world are hoping this is not the end for Studio Ghibli, but if it is, “When Marnie Was There” provides a fitting conclusion.