Normally, I love what Studio Ghibli has to offer. Their films are more insightful to human emotion than most children’s films could ever dream to be, and they are unparalleled in the realm of the quality of their 2D animation. They have made some of the best animated films of all time, including Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and last year’s brilliant and heart-wrenching The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. And this is why I regret that in the film studio’s final days, of the three films I’ve reviewed this is the second one that I must give negative press. When Marnie Was There starts out strong and full of potential, but quickly descends into confusion and ultimately comes up bafflingly and insultingly short.
Our protagonist is Anna, a twelve-year-old girl who suffers from asthma and seemingly crippling social anxiety and depression. After a severe attack (attributed to asthma, but more likely due to psychological symptoms), Anna is prescribed rest in the clean air of the countryside with relatives of her foster mother. She has trouble socializing with local children until she meets a mysterious young woman named Marnie, who lives in a mansion across the bay. The two become instant friends and start to develop a severe and lasting bond.
This seems like great fodder for a coming-of-age story, and for a long time it seems to be headed in that direction. It even shows great promise of being a lesbian romantic tale, as the two girls appear to be much closer than just friends (though this admittedly may be due to cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. in terms of intimacy between friends). And yet, it doesn’t deliver on any of that promise. Things start to become a bit weird, as the film begins to hint that Marnie’s house has been recently moved into by a different family and questions about Marnie’s origins begin to become more and more daunting. But instead to playing with that intrigue, the film chooses to largely ignore it, with Anna explicitly stating that she doesn’t care who Marnie is, even as the film agonizes us with hints of something greater. Intrigue only works if the audience is as invested in the mystery as the protagonist, but if the protagonist has no interest in solving the mystery, then it makes the audience question whether there will ever be a satisfying answer.
And yes, the film does give an answer to the lingering questions of who exactly Marnie is, but the supposedly emotional twist ending is not only unsatisfying, but it ultimately raises even more questions than it answers, as previous events aren’t recontextualized to fit this new information. This makes the ending feel blatantly manipulative, hoping that the audience will not notice the gaping plot holes as it mechanically feeds us what is supposed to be the emotional lynchpin of the film. It doesn’t even work on those terms either, as the twist is not organically introduced into the plot, but is rather the result of an extended expository speech from a character to whom we’ve barely been introduced. It feels lazy and disappointing.
It’s horrible that Studio Ghibli has closed its doors on such a flat and lackluster note. There is hope that they will return in the future under new leadership after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, but as it stands now, their legacy is tarnished by their final product, a bizarre little mess of a film that does not do justice to the mark they made on the world of animation. Remember the good films, the early films, or even the recently remarkable Princess Kaguya. But don’t ruin your love of Ghibli by subjecting yourself to When Marnie Was There.