When Marnie Was There is a film of goodbyes. To say exactly when or how would be a spoiler, but the most prominent farewell is to Studio Ghibli itself. Marnie was their last movie, the bookend to the most beloved and influential animation studio since Disney. Absent here is the bombast and fantasy of Ghibli’s past. Rather, Marnie communicates a sense of quiet reflection that makes it one of Ghibli’s most special films, even if it is far from its best.
Marnie is, at its core, a ghost and mystery story. 12-year old Anna is sent to the countryside to let the fresh air treat a serious ailment. The doctor says asthma. The audience knows severe depression. Anna hates herself, hates that she’s a burden to her foster parents, and hates the unnecessary interactions of people that she must so often be forced to deal with at parties and other social events. She takes refuge in her sketches, private drawings of the world around her that she refuses to show anyone on the grounds that they’re “not very good.” Her art is her happiness, until, of course, she meets Marnie, an energetic young girl that lives in an abandoned mansion cut off from reality by a small lagoon.
The relationship between Marnie and Anna is the focus of When Marnie Was There, burgeoning into a solid friendship after just the first meeting. Marnie is a quiet film, so every one of the limited lines carries developmental weight, and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (whose only previous directing credit was the beautiful yet formulaic Secret World of Arrietty) keeps the film plodding along at a pace that never sacrifices either the love between the two or the supernatural, surreal mystery that pulls Marnie along (although it will be considerably too slow for younger children).
Nevertheless, that mystery itself is simplistic at best, sprinkling out only a few clues before the final climactic reveal. Blink, and you can miss them.
But the bare-bones mystery is not the only reason to widen your eyes. Ghibli has crafted each frame of Marnie with more care than mother would give a child. Every image is strikingly beautiful and compositionally perfect, and Ghibli’s trademark attention to detail is as strong here as ever before. The character design and animation of Anna and Marnie have been meticulously formed, allowing them to move and express in a way that creates remarkably real chemisty between two sets of lines on paper.
Yet Marnie is far from perfect. A cast of secondary characters are introduced and quickly dropped, potentially out of regard to give more screen time to Anna and Marnie, potentially out of script-writing laziness. For most of these characters this amounts to little more than wasted potential, but one relationship in particular, between Anna and her foster mother, feels like a terrible failure. Anna’s mother plays an integral role in every aspect of Marnie, yet she’s given under ten minutes of time to interact with Anna in any way. This oversight thematically damages the movie, reducing what could’ve been a life-changing emotional-gutpunch near Marnie’s end to simply a series of powerful moments.
Despite its PG rating, this is not a film for children. It is too slow, too sad, and too sincere for a child to tolerate. Yet despite its script’s shortcomings, When Marnie Was There is a tear-jerking, bittersweet, and visually stunning portrait of two characters that feel more real and grounded than any Ghibli has produced in the past. We know that Ghibli can do better, but I’m unsure that it needed to. When Marnie Was There is an unfiltered act of love, the dying whisper of a studio that the world is forced to see fade away.