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When Marnie Was There (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 8, 2020

When Marnie Was There

When Marnie Was There


The Japanese-language cast features the voices of Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima, Toshie Negishi,Ryôko Moriyama, Kazuko Yoshiyuki and Kazuko Yoshiyuki.

The English-language cast features the voices of Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly, Grey Griffin, Catherine O’Hara, Ellen Burstyn, Vanessa Williams and Kathy Bates.

Screenplay by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando.

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi.

Distributed by GKids.  103 minutes.  Rated PG.

When Marnie Was There is of note, if for no other reason, because it will apparently be the last film created by the legendary Japanese animation Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo), at least in the foreseeable future.

While Marnie is far from the best film produced by the studio – it’s a tiny bit slow-moving in the early sections and works too hard to pluck our heartstrings at the end – it does remind us that the world will be a lesser place without their films.

First of all, Marnie is a huge reminder of the simple power and grace of hand-drawn animation. The film looks stunning. Literally, there are multiple shots in this movie that are suitable of framing.  Also, even though computer animation is now the law of the animation land, simpler and “state of the art,” nothing that Pixar or one of their rivals could pull off will ever have the warmth and sheer scope of pen and ink animation.

When Marnie Was There tells the simple story of Anna, a tomboyish Japanese girl whose parents and grandmother died when she was a mere toddler.  She has little or no memory of them.  She lives with her foster parents, who are loving but overprotective. Anna is a loner and quite honestly depressive.  She has no friends and regularly tells herself that she hates herself.  The only thing she has that she truly loves is her art, but she is afraid to show it to anyone – even the art teacher.

This is some pretty deep stuff for a children’s movie. Anna’s self-loathing is dangerous and disturbing, and she may even be bordering on suicidal, which is not something you look for in an animated film.  When an anxiety attack causes Anna to go to the hospital with an asthmatic seizure, her foster parents decide it may be beneficial for Anna to spend a few weeks with some friends who have a home on a lovely seaside town.

From the very beginning of her experience in town, Anna feels a sense of déjà vu.  This especially extends to a gorgeous mansion on the shore, one her hosts tell her may be haunted.  They suggest that she stay away from the place, but Anna’s curiosity keeps bringing her back towards the old homestead.

Soon, while watching the house, she notices a girl her age in one of the windows.  Eventually she meets and befriends that girl, Marnie.  Marnie is everything that Anna is not – upbeat, adventurous, outgoing, girly – and yet through their friendship Anna starts to come out of her funk. However, eventually Anna realizes there is something odd about her friendship with Marnie, who cannot go far beyond the confines of her home.

Is Marnie real, a ghost or a figment of Anna’s imagination?  For that matter, is it possible that Anna is the imaginary friend or ghost and Marnie is the one that is real?  When Marnie Was There plays with the possibilities for much of its middle section before wrapping up the mystery in a neat bow in the long, touching and just slightly mawkish end section.

When Marnie Was There is being released in the US in two different ways – in the original Japanese with subtitles or in a dubbed version with US stars taking on the lead roles.  I actually saw it in the subtitled version, which is probably a more atmospheric way of seeing it, all things considered.  However, if you have kids who may balk on subtitles, I have no doubt that the dubbed version of the film would work just fine.

That said, as children’s films go, When Marnie Was There is somewhat dark, so plan accordingly for younger children.

However, even if this film is imperfect, it is sheer heaven to look at.  When Marnie Was There is worthy of a viewing simply for the stunning animation.  The fact that the story is mostly intriguing if somewhat flawed is a bonus.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2015 All rights reserved. Posted: June 5, 2015.

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