Movie Review: When Marnie Was There (2015)

Details: Under two hours long.

When Marnie Was There is the latest film from Studio Ghibli and — they claim — their “last.” I watched it with some friends with the English dub, which is unfortunate because I prefer to watch foreign films subtitled. Many things often get lost in translation with English dubs.

The animation here is standard Studio Ghibli: well animated and lovely to see. The music was fine. The voice acting was all right in that it was an English dub. Notable is John C. Reilly’s character. I could pick this guy’s voice out of a heavy metal concert.

As for the story and plot…

This film certainly induced a case of me questioning whether certain elements were intended or something was not translated well. For instance, there is a relationship between two children that seemed very much like a homosexual relationship, which is confusing for various reasons. A part of me really wanted to applaud Ghibli if they intentionally tried to tackle this issue in a children’s film. On the other hand, if this wasn’t an attempt to tackle the issue of homosexuality but instead a projection of my perverse mind and a tendency to sexualize everything, then I would feel pretty guilty for dirtying something innocent.

Ultimately, the film’s conclusion placed upon me an even crazier question: was the relationship between the children homosexual, incestuous, or am I a horrible person? My feelings are that a little bit of all three possibilities are true. In my defense, a friend who watched a subtitled version said the same questions were present in that version. Maybe all our minds are just in the gutter… who knows.

As for the other elements of the story, the structure felt very much like I was watching the Notebook, A Walk to Remember, The Fault in Our Stars, and any other Nicholas Sparks story. I find these stories cheap. I don’t like them. Just a lot of exposition at the end which felt like a writing exercise testing the writer’s ability to tell as tragic a story as possible in the shortest amount of time.

Score: 5/10 I feel a lot of people give Ghibli a pass because of their history. Many people likely regard every movie out of the studio as masterpieces. I respectfully disagree. I will say I enjoyed the film to a degree; I enjoyed the mystery of the story.

Additionally, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have not enjoyed the majority of films produced by Studio Ghibli. Grave of Fireflies, to me, is still studio Ghibli’s greatest film. This is mostly because it told a story that would not have been touched by the West. It’s a story that in many ways challenges the righteousness of the Americans attacking Japan and has you dwell on the suffering they caused. I appreciated this story because it offered something contrary to what you normally get in mainstream, western media. It approaches a subject you don’t get a lot of in school and made me consider just how righteous or evil any participant in a war truly is; to consider how righteous or evil my country truly is. When Marnie Was There is not as profound, controversial, or as adult and — through no fault of its own — was likely looked down upon even further by me because of it. I apologize Studio Ghibli, for I watch most of your films expecting a depth of emotion as extreme as the one in Grave of Fireflies and when I don’t get that, I’m disappointed.

Moreover, there have been few children’s movies with female protagonists that I have enjoyed (didn’t like Brave or Frozen; Brave’s protagonist almost got eaten by her mom whom she turned into a bear and Frozen’s protagonist glazed over the fact that she can create sentient, ice-based life). I read in an interview somewhere that if you want to write correctly for a strong, female protagonist, you write a story with a male protagonist and then change the genders and cast a female for the role. This movie could serve as a good example of why that may not work. To a greater extent, this may be Joan G. Robinson’s fault since she wrote the novel this film was based on. I never read the book though and perhaps Ghibli took the story in an unintended direction. In any case, I long for a film with a strong, female protagonist and a believable, well-structured plot. In my opinion, this film is close, but not quite there.

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