Review: ‘When Marnie Was There’ a sweet, understated Studio Ghibli effort

Posted by on Jun 6, 2015 in Voice-Over | 0 comments

Like many animations from Studio Ghibli, key scenes in “When Marnie Was There” play out not in reality or a fantasy, but the in-between. Based on Joan G. Robinson’s book and adapted by the venerated Japanese studio, it tells the story of a troubled 12-year-old, Anna (voice of Hailee Steinfeld), who befriends Marnie (Taylor Autumn Bertman), a girl who seems from another time and place.

Anna is shipped to a quiet seaside village by her sweet, concerned foster mother to get “fresh air” for her chronic asthma, which prompts blackouts. Her condition is often triggered by social anxiety – when Anna drops a letter in the mailbox and sees another person approaching, she quickly hurries away to avoid interaction. An initial impression of her is revealed in a quietly anguished voiceover: “I hate myself,” Anna says, later describing herself as “ugly, stupid, moody and unpleasant.”

Staying with kindly relatives, Anna wanders the marshy cove, expressing her curious obsession with a yellow mansion on the water via her sketchbook. She frequently dreams of seeing an old woman brushing a blond girl’s hair through the window. Rowing across the bay, she’s greeted from the mansion by the blond girl, Marnie, and they become fast friends. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi gives us minimal cues as to the story’s setting, but Marnie is clearly turn-of-the-century bourgeois, with a strict nanny and absentee parents. She makes Anna vow to keep their friendship secret.


‘When Marnie Was There’

3 stars (out of 4)

MPAA rating: PG for thematic elements and smoking

Voice cast (dubbed version): Hailee Steinfeld, Taylor Autumn Burtman, Ellen Burstyn, John C. Reilly

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Run time: 103 minutes

See it: Celebration Cinema Woodland in Grand Rapids, presented in both subtitled and English dubbed versions

After some of her encounters with Marnie, Anna is found passed out in a shrub or along a wooded path. “It’s not a dream,” Marnie tells Anna. But what is it? Together, they play and explore; they build a sand castle, and it’s washed away by a wave, a symbol of vulnerability and impermanence. The visual frames Anna as fragile, but it also serves as a reminder that her sadness and suffering may be temporary, something she can overcome.

Ghibli films frequently feature ghosts, creatures and other nebulous oddities, some from Japanese folklore. “Marnie” isn’t fantastical like founder Hayao Miyazaki’s great metaphorical fantasies “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” – it’s a straightforward melodrama, on-the-nose and earnest, albeit with hazy, surrealist fringes. Visually, it’s a gorgeous display of watercolor landscapes, understated natural beauty, not the otherworldly and thrilling phantasmagorias of other Ghibli works. It’s even dialed back from Yonebayashi’s tiny-people tale “The Secret World of Arrietty,” more firmly rooted in realist conflicts. (It may also be Ghibli’s last, as the studio is halting production, at least temporarily, in the wake of Miyazaki’s retirement.)

The film could easily have been a live-action young-adult film with minimal special effects, but the animation serves its impressionist flavor to balance its more plainspoken qualities. It’s the type of movie that may bore young audiences, although such minds are ripe for its coming-of-age themes of loneliness and self-acceptance. If children watch it now, it’ll plant a seed for their future appreciation, when they see it again as adults, and are more attuned to its beautifully bittersweet tones.

Note: I reviewed the English dubbed version of the film.

John Serba is film critic and entertainment reporter for MLive and The Grand Rapids Press. Email him at or follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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