Writer: Keiko Niwa, Masashi Ando, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Joan G. Robinson (book)
Cast: Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura, Nanako Matsushima, Susumu Terajima (Japanese version) / Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Geena Davis, John C. Reilly (American version)
Running time: 103mins
The lowdown: Studio Ghibli’s final film before their “indefinite hiatus” is a warm coming of age movie with a gentle supernatural wrapping. Troubled 12-year-old Anna spends a summer recovering from an asthma attack with her aunt and uncle in their coastal town. Withdrawn, she nonetheless befriends Marnie, a mysterious girl living in a peculiar mansion. Not reaching the heights of the Ghibli classics, but if this is the final movie from the studio Totoro built, it’s a pleasant swansong.
The full verdict: Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, whose previous Ghibli film was the enjoyable Arietty, may not have known When Marnie Was There would be the studio’s final film for the foreseeable future.
But, despite it being an adaptation of Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel, the director and his two co-screenwriters load it with recognisable Ghibli traits.
The young girl leaving the city for the wonder of rural Japan has been a recurring Ghibli theme since Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro and was the central plot of Ghibli co-founder Takahata Isao’s Only Yesterday.
A hidden world of wonder a wrong turn or tumble away from everyday life is a studio mainstay, most notably seen in the Oscar winning Spirited Away.
Only Miyazaki’s love of flight is absent, which is not to say the film does not soar on occasion.
The self-loathing Anna, convinced she exists outside the invisible circle everyone else dwells within, is Ghibli’s most troubled child protagonist. Directing most of her anger inward flashes do occasionally scorch those around her.
The seaside idyll of her aunt and uncle’s town provides some solace for the sketch-happy teen, but her life transforms when she literally falls into another world, revealing a rundown mansion house built on the far side of local wetlands. It’s well-known to the townsfolk, but only Anna seems to notice the life within it, particularly the gregarious teen Marnie.
Bonding immediately over Marnie’s wondrous house provides a respite for Anna from her kindly, overbearing family and the inquiring neighbours. And for Marnie from her disciplinarian grandmother. But, as both girls’ secrets are revealed, what is real and what is illusion begins to blur.
Yonebayashi retains Anna’s blue eyes and Marnie’s blond tresses to enhance the otherworldliness, distancing the girls from those around them.
Gently paced and beautifully animated, When Marnie Was There eschews whizz-bang for an intimate, affecting story of shyness and the restorative powers of friendship.
The revelations are small, but the pay-off is rewarding, with a climax set in a crumbling grain silo a stormier version of the denouements to Kiki’s Delivery Service or The Cat’s Return.
Japan has other animation houses producing great work, but it would be a crushing shame if there are to be no more magical tales from Ghibli.