With the most recent “retirement” of mastermind Hayao Miyazaki, the latest “final film” from Japanese animation titan Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, is a fitting swan song for the beloved stable that brought us Spirited Away (2001), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and many others. Though not directed by Miyazaki himself but instead helmed by longtime apprentice Hiromasa Yonebayashi (whose directorial debut was 2010’s The Secret World of Arrietty), When Marnie Was There nevertheless revisits familiar Studio Ghibli themes and story elements. Our young female protagonist, Anna, learns to cope with the inevitable confusion, alienation, and pain of youth (exacerbated here by the fact that Anna is an asthmatic foster child who also happens to look “foreign”) through fleeting contact with a spirit world that may or may not actually exist. Marnie’s greatest strength, like that of the above-mentioned Studio Ghibli classics, is that it doesn’t get bogged down in asking whether anything that happens in the spirit world actually happens in the reality of the film; it is enough for us to see it and, more importantly, to learn from it. Anna’s relationship with the titular Marnie begins when the former is sent to live with relatives of her foster mother in a rural village after she collapses from an asthma attack at school. Teased for her blue eyes on multiple occasions, Anna finds in Marniea desperately-sought fellow outcast, a literal foreigner and carbon copy of Alice from Alice in Wonderland whose parents vacation in her life as much as they do in the mansion that occupies an isolated spot across a marsh from the rest of the village. When not pretending to have fun at one of her parents’ lavish parties, Marnie spends most of her time being harshly bullied, and even outright abused, by the family maids. The ringleader of this abuse is called simply Nanny, a buttoned-up matron who is equal parts Mrs. Danvers and Nurse Ratched, albeit tempered for the youthful target audience. This remains the only “kids movie” indulgence in the film. Taking on brutal realities from neglect to bullying to the search for belonging, When Marnie Was There handles even its roughest subject matter with equal parts assurance and tenderness. Yonebayashi and his co-writers Masashi Ando and Keiko Niwa strike a balance that approaches and even at times surpasses the best of Studio Ghibli’s vaunted catalogue. Whether the studio itself continues to exist (the current “hiatus” threatens to break its impressive streak of producing an Oscar nominee three years in a row), it is clear that the 42-year-old Yonebayashi is a talent to watch. So many years of studying at the feet of a master like Miyazaki may well have made him a master in his own right.
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
English Voice Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, John C. Reilly, Vanessa Williams