Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 103 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. The film is about a young girl with asthma who becomes friends with another young girl who is mysterious and strange, so there are some hints of supernatural activity, as well as some neglectful or dead parents, bullying, and emotional issues, like a young girl being unsure of whether her family really loves her and how she fits in. Like most of Studio Ghibli movies, these are young characters experiencing thoughtful emotional journeys, so for younger children, this may be over their heads.
Studio Ghibli delivers again with ‘When Marnie Was There,’ an expressive exploration of growing up when you’re unsure of where you fit in. As always, the animation is beautiful and the emotions are impactful.
By Roxana Hadadi
Studio Ghibli has always made films that express the feelings of, but don’t coddle, their young characters and audiences, like this year’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya” (about a mysterious princess and her place in Japanese society) and last year’s “The Wind Rises” (about the development of flight). The Japanese animation company continues that streak with “When Marnie Was There,” another thoughtful, meditative look at growing up and the self-reflective challenges it brings.
“When Marnie Was There” poses three questions: How do we view ourselves? How do others view us? And how do those two viewpoints intersect and impact each other? The two main female characters in “When Marnie Was There” experience these questions over and over again in their attempt to understand how growing up works, and although the film moves slowly, it doesn’t drag.
Instead, the variety of different viewpoints expressed will be good jumping-off points for parents and young viewers afterward: Have you ever felt like these characters did? Do you ever wonder about fitting in? What do you like most about yourself? What do you dislike? Who has made you feel that way? “When Marnie Was There” takes audiences through a lot, but it gives them a lot to think about, too.
The film focuses on the young Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, of “Pitch Perfect 2”), who doesn’t fit in with girls at school (“There’s an invisible magic circle. These people are inside, and I’m outside”) and who has a polite-but-chilly relationship with her guardian, whom she calls “Auntie.” After a particularly bad asthma attack, her doctor recommends she go to the countryside for a while for her health, so Auntie sends her to her sister and her husband’s place by the sea. “Come back nice and happy,” she tells Anna, and as the train winds through the beautiful country landscape and marshes, it’s easy to see why such a place would be appealing.
But Anna is determined to keep up her old routines—she avoids meeting new people, runs away from introductions—until she notices a dilapidated old mansion called the Marsh House, which seems familiar to her. The place is supposed to be abandoned and haunted, but in some lights, it looks brand-new, well-kept, and beautiful—and one day, Anna meets a girl who says she lives there, Marnie (voiced by Kiernan Shipka).
The blonde foreigner Marnie becomes fast friends with Anna, so much so that the latter disappears every day to spend time with the Marsh House girl. But strange things keep happening, too, like Anna waking up in weird places after she spends time with Marnie, and other people being unable to see the Marsh House in the splendor that Anna sees it. What is going on? And will their friendship survive?
Studio Ghibli films, because of their Japanese cultural influence, always have some supernatural, almost uncanny, elements in them, and “When Marnie Was There” is no exception. But these portions of the film aren’t played for fear, but instead as allegory: Sometimes we don’t understand what’s going on, or why we react the way we do, or how we treat people. But we can try to control ourselves and our lives, even in the face of such strangeness, by learning about who we are and being comfortable with that knowledge, and that’s the message “When Marnie Was There” is trying to send. It’s one that should apply to parents and children alike.
There is a possibility that “When Marnie Was There” may be Studio Ghibli’s last movie; they’ve announced a break in production after its release. If that’s the case, it’s a loss for family film, but makes “When Marnie Was There” even more necessary to watch: It’s a striking and perceptive film, emblematic of everything Studio Ghibli does best, that you won’t forget.
Interested in a previously released film? Read our reviews of films already showing in your local theater.