Wednesday, 16 December 2015

When Marnie Was There (2015) - Movie Review if you’re too hesitant to venture further into the world of magical girls and giant robots, Studio Ghibli is that rare exception that demands respect from everyone. Comparable to the Disney of Japan, its filmography are among the most definitive of the entire art form, from its fantastical marvels like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away to its more heart-rending productions like Grave Of The Fireflies. New releases from this studio are looked forward to as much as Wes Anderson films in film buff circles. So, when news hit that not only was the head honcho Hayao Miyazaki going on hiatus but the rest of the studio as well, otaku the world over felt a collective tear form in the corner of their eye. Given all of this information, today’s subject has a lot of weight to it as, potentially, the last film that Studio Ghibli ever releases. It’s not Miyazaki, but that doesn’t change the clout the name ‘Ghibli’ has, so this had better be damn good. This is When Marnie Was There.

The plot: Anne (Hailee Steinfeld), after suffering from a particularly nasty asthma attack, is sent by her foster parents to live with her aunt and uncle in a seaside village. When she visits a nearby supposedly abandoned mansion, she meets Marnie (Kiernan Shipka), a warm and inviting girl whom Anne soon forms a kinship with. However, as their encounters become more unusual and her name starts ringing different bells when mentioned in town, Anne discovers that Marnie may not be all that she appears to be.

It’s Studio Ghibli, so of course the production values are amazing. The animation is fluid with no signs of budget-cut moments, the character designs are crisp and the scenery is beautifully painted. Given how all of the dramatic action happens in a sea side town, it’s surprising just how serene it all looks. This extends to the sound design as well, both in terms of how the vocals are integrated and how the soundtrack is integrated. Takatsugu Muramatsu’s sweeping and blissful score hits adventurous, tragic and even romantic in places with the kind of efficacy that brings tears to the eye.

Ghibli also has a knack for bringing together A-list talent for the English dub, except they are usually names that aren’t normally associated with voice work. This is no exception, with names like Catherine O’Hara, Kathy Bates, Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn and John C. Reilly just to name a few. Jamie Simone, probably best known for the best voice director on Naruto (pre-time skip), did an amazing job at translating these actors’ abilities to just their vocals: Steinfeld gives proper dimension to her role and delivers emotion like I’ve never seen/heard from her before; Reilly and Grey DeLisle make for two pretty cool guardians, avoiding the weirdly unsavoury behaviour I keep seeing in this studio’s work (stealing food, reckless driving, etc.); and Shipka, having prior experience as a VA, manages to work especially well with Marnie’s dialogue. This is rather surprising because, to put it simply, this is a weirdly written role.

At the heart of this film is Anna’s feeling of disconnection from the world, both as a result of her asthma and because she is a foster child. The film does a decent enough of portraying her relationship with Marnie as her finally making that connection with someone else, except they do so by making Marnie out to be a “free-spirited” person. What a lot of screenwriters tend to forget about this style of characterisation is that, if unchecked, it can end up coming across like she’s got a few screws loose. I shouldn’t be getting uncomfortable flashbacks to Leslie Burke from Bridge To Terabithia out of how unintentionally concerning a character is. Not to say that it isn’t understandable, given what we learn about Marnie’s upbringing. It’s just that when they have her describing Anna as “her precious secret”, there’s only so much whimsy that can be used to barricade the potential implications that could come out of that line of thinking. Of course, once the plot progresses further, their relationship to each other only grows more concerning as a result. Because of this, there is this barrier that prevents complete investment in the proceedings, as there is a large portion of the film where it’s not entirely clear if we should be concerned about what Anna is getting herself into.

This isn’t helped by how we’re not exactly sure what kind of relationship this is. I mean, I know that anime is more than capable of depicting the power of platonic love: Madoka Magicka is a friggin’ masterpiece for that very reason. It’s just that, maybe because of my own Western sensibilities, Anna and Marnie’s iterations of “I love you” comes across as something maybe more intense than the filmmakers intended. Not to say that there is something inherently wrong with the film going in that direction; just that, when it isn’t made clear if that is the case, it can cause some real tonal whiplash. Not only that, even the possibility of this makes Marnie’s already verging-on-unsettling behaviour seem even more suspect. Sure, this all gets resolved by film’s end, but said resolution actually brings up other implications that only make the end result feel weirder.

All in all, it’s a beautifully drawn story that, even if it is held back by certain questionable plot developments, still hits emotional depth more times than not. It follows the studio’s standards for English dub casting and artistic integrity, but it also falls into some of the studio’s lesser work in terms of narrative cohesion. As a potential capper to a very long and storied institution, it’s a bit of a letdown. Then again, I believe this to be the end as much as I believed Kool Keith’s retirement announcement.

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