A few weeks back, I talked about how animation shouldn’t be refined to be called a genre and was instead a medium that could hold multiple genres when I reviewed Inside Out. Now I further believe this statement after viewing what could be last offering from the highly accomplished Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There, which takes a tale that never needed to be animated and creates a fantasy world around a heavy, adult story.
When Marnie Was There follows Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) who is suffering from asthma. Her guardian believes that the best course of action would be to send her to her friends who live in the country as a way to stay away from the polluted air of Tokyo, but also the people that she struggles to get along with. One statement made by Anna in the opening sequence really struck me because it was something that I wasn’t used to hearing much less from an animated movie, but from a child character in one — “I hate myself.”
This admission of severe anxiety and depression was heavy for a film about children and something that seems so foreign to the animation medium. While Inside Out dealt with the insecurities that befall a child, When Marnie Was There took it a step forward and took these insecurities head on in a more mature and adult manner. Much like the rest of their filmography, Studio Ghibli was again unafraid to challenge the norm and make their viewers think deeply about the problems of life in and out of a fantastical location.
Once Anna reaches her home away from home, she discovers an abandoned marsh house, which seems like something familiar. As we dive into Anna’s past (she was adopted after her parents died in a car wreck and now lives with someone who has no relation to her) and understand what makes her feel isolated from everyone else, we are introduced to Marnie (Kiernan Shipka) who Anna seems to feel a real comfort to and begins to strike up a friendship.
Much of When Marnie Was There is a mystery into Marnie’s past, but it also is a mystery into who Anna is and works as an exploration into your own personality. Anna gains strength through her trials and moments with Marnie, only to learn that this moments are truly their own and that she is re-enacting something that was from long ago.
Yonebayashi (who also directed Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arriety) is able to weave these two story lines together seamlessly and seems more comfortable and free with this movie than he did with his previous effort, which felt like it had the heavy hand of the studio (Disney) involved. With this film coming through GKids, he seems more at home and with the ability to tell the story he wants to rather than what the studio thinks we want to hear.
It’s funny that I saw this movie so close to Inside Out because while they are vastly different films, they seems to have a very similar resonating heartbeat — that of a desire to understand the mind of a child and the tribulations that they go through each day. While the Pixar films examines the inner workings of the mind and uses that device to understand its theme, When Marnie Was There uses what powers we have around us and seems more tangible in its discoveries even though the plot devices could seem just as magical.
Marnie isn’t like Joy or Sadness, but instead seems like the best friend that you never knew you had until you needed her. She works just like the emotions of Inside Out do, but seems to have a more upfront challenge for Anna than they do for Riley.
When Marnie Was There is another example of an animated film not needing that medium to tell the story, but using it to its advantage to make something more out of the tale. It is a film about female friendships, or just friends in general, and how our own insecurities can force us to think that we are against the world on our own or are isolated. It is a heavy film for children, but like Inside Out, one that carries an important message in terms of growing up and becoming your own person.
It is a lesson about ourselves and how we can decide to form our own being or ignore it and feel like we face the world alone.