‘When Marnie Was There’ Review: Studio Ghibli’s Latest Looks Great, But the Story Falls Short

This adaptation of a British novel boasts the voices of Hailee Steinfeld and Kiernan Shipka and the lush visuals you’d expect — but the narrative feels wobbly

“When Marnie Was There,” the second animated feature from director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“The Secret World of Arrietty”) feels very much of a piece with other films from Studio Ghibli, from its lush portrayal of the natural world (“My Neighbor Totoro,” “Pom Poko”) to its complex female protagonist (“Spirited Away,” “Princess Mononoke”).

It also, unfortunately, ranks among Ghibli’s lesser screenplays, comparable most notably to Hayao Miyazaki‘s “Howl’s Moving Castle,” a gorgeous film that nonetheless falls apart narratively. Both “Marnie” and “Howl’s” are based on British novels — although, to be fair, so was “Arrietty” — which might suggest that the filmmakers at the legendary Japanese studio tell better stories out of their own heads than when they’re adapting the works of others.

In any event, “Marnie” creates such a rich world – from its seaside village to a gothic abandoned mansion to a scary old abandoned grain silo – that anime fans will overlook its flaws. If you’re a Ghibli booster who’s looking to initiate newcomers, however, this film might not be the place to start.

We’re introduced to Anna (Hailee Steinfeld in the English-language dub; Sara Takatsuki in the original Japanese — distributor GKids is distributing both versions in the U.S.), a young girl who’s a talented artist but clearly troubled, and more so than the usual protagonist of a film aimed at kids. We hear her say, “I hate myself!” several times over the course of the story, suggesting a deep depression and even possible suicidal intentions.

marnie_hires_6Anna feels like a burden to her foster mother, and even though the woman is nothing but loving and nurturing to the girl, Anna is devastated to learn that her foster parents receive a stipend for taking care of her. Growing more antisocial and removed from her peers, Anna is sent off to the country to live with an aunt and uncle and to get some fresh air. (On top of everything else, Anna has asthma.)

She’s immediately drawn to a gloomy seaside manor that triggers her imagination, and as the sun goes down and the tide rises, Anna sees a young girl in a high window having her hair brushed by a governess. That girl is Marnie (“Mad Men”‘s Kiernan Shipka; Kasumi Arimura), and soon the two girls grow close, even though Marnie demands that Anna keep their friendship a secret.

Is Marnie a ghost? A figment of Anna’s imagination? And what’s going to happen when a new family moves into the manor house?

Viewers will probably figure out the answers to those questions before the characters do in the screenplay by Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa, and Masashi Ando (adapting Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 novel). But it’s not the predictability that’s disappointing as much as the pat resolutions and emotional fixes provided to Anna. If you’re going to set up a young character who’s this complicated and in this much pain, you owe her a similarly complex catharsis.

The interplay between Anna and Marnie is nonetheless heartfelt and haunting, with two fragile souls reaching out to each other across time and space to provide affection and even forgiveness. (As a bonus, fans of the youthful butch-femme dynamic can put this one on their lists after “Little Darlings” and Peppermint Patty and Marcie.)

As a visual (and auditory) experience, “When Marnie Was There” offers so many other pleasures that audiences may well overlook the story issues. After all, even second-tier Studio Ghibli releases rank among world cinema’s finest animated films.