In what very well could be Studio Ghibli’s final film, as well as their first “Ghibli Gothic” tale (a phrase coined by director Hiromasa Yonebayashi),When Marnie Was There is a more than worthy sendoff to one of the greatest animation studios of all time. Keeping in the tradition of their reliably understated and languid yet meaningful tales of blended fantasy and reality, this film is another rousing success to add to the vast collection of Ghibli’s past triumphs, and makes this fan of their work eager to see them come out of retirement as quickly as possible.
Adapted from a British novel of the same name by Joan G. Robinson, When Marnie Was There centers on a depressed, self loathing teenager named Anna who – following a frightening asthma attack – is sent away from her foster home in the city to live with her aunt and uncle in a picturesque seaside town for the summer. While there, Anna is immediately drawn to a seemingly abandoned mansion across the bay, and soon comes to know a mysterious young woman named Marnie who lives there, and the two develop a strong bond.
Of course it goes without saying that the film is gorgeously animated – hell, after all these years, the biggest takeaway you should be getting from Studio Ghibli is their breathtaking hand-drawn animation. But one of the biggest strengths of this film in particular is the inherent complexity of the story/themes. Whereas some of Ghibli’s past fantasy films depended on more streamlined, straightforward storytelling (not do discredit them for doing so, since it always worked out in their favor), When Marnie Was Therecontains more than a few deliberately ambiguous plot details, and proves to be one of the most thematically complex films Ghibli has ever put out – at least in regards to the more fantastical elements of the narrative. In previous films such as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, they operated under a mostly literal-minded interpretation of their respective stories, by always keeping the focus on the external plots with any dramatic subtext only being hinted at. But here, it’s a very strong possibility that all of these things could very well be in Anna’s head, and merely a coping mechanism for dealing with such crushing isolation and loneliness.
At once modern in its observations on growing up as a teenager in the 21st century and still timeless in the universal nature of its themes, the bittersweet sendoff to the Studio Ghibli canon that is When Marnie Was There is something that should definitely not be overlooked. A real treat for longtime fans of the famed animation studio, as well as a beautifully animated and emotionally resonant standalone work, this film should work for just about anyone, as the best of Ghibli’s works always do.