Looking back, I feel a bit bamboozled by the trailer. Accompanied by Priscilla Ahn’s very touching and emotionally tender theme song “Fine On The Outside” the trailer managed to make this look like a really adorable little film about adolescent friendship, featuring innocent adventures and thrilling slow boat rides on the lake at night, all wrapped around some kind of a endearing but still suitably thrilling mystery. While you do certainly kinda get the general sense of that, it’s nowhere near as magical as you expect/want it to be. Which is a shame, because Studio Ghibli is starting to be in a place where it is desperately in need of younger blood starting to make a name for themselves as directors on their own right, without Hayao Miyazaki’s shadow in particular looming in the background. After all, even Gorō Miyazaki’s second feature From Up on Poppy Hill, which was a very entertaining film and a considerable step up from the disappointment that was his directional debut in Tales from Earthsea, seemed to at least partly do so well thanks to his father still handling the script, rather than the film excelling entirely on Gorō’s own directional merit. If the future of Ghibli after Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata lies in works like Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s When Marnie Was There and Arriety, the golden days of the studio seem sadly to be a thing of the past.
This is not to say Marnie is a bad movie. Far from it. Visually it’s just as gorgeous as is to be expected from Studio Ghibli. The textures, the vivid depiction of nature, as well as the colors and over all production designs are simply enchanting. Even the characters have all the usual charm of the old Ghibli magic. Where the movie does fall short, unfortunately, is in the core of the movie, the writing itself. Let’s make this clear: going in, I really wanted to like this movie because like I said, the trailer really captivated me. It seemed to be just the type of thing I would like to see from Ghibli. But the writing just isn’t up to the task. Around halfway through you start to notice that while the movie is certainly pretty to look at, the story doesn’t really flow that well or have you in its grip like it ought to, and by the end you had had to accept the unfortunate fact that the movie isn’t very satisfying experience as far as the storytelling is concerned. Now, I haven’t read the original book so I have no idea what the adaptation process was and how much things were changed aside from the obvious change of milieu, but considering how the book seems to have been a rather popular children’s book for decades, something was clearly lost when bringing it to the big screen and the inherent appeal was lost in transition. I just find myself completely indifferent to the larger story, it left me entirely cold despite my efforts to warm up to it.
Another inherent flaw with the movie is that it basically trips a little too much on its own sentimentality in the end. It’s by far too predictable, fragmented, choppy, over dramatic, not to mention abrupt to ever truly to get you to submerge into its story. I understand the basic idea behind wanting to make the encounters between Anna and Marnie have a sense of intrigue to them while simultaneously making it immediately clear something is off, but to be honest, the way this was handled in the movie leaves a lot to be desired. They don’t try to hide the fact that there’s something odd about Marnie appearing out of nowhere and Anna blacking out, but rather than making it feel like a mystery that needs to be solved by yours truly, it doesn’t really get addressed in a meaningful way that would lend itself to naturally get you speculating on the side, so bunch of stuff just happens without you never getting the slightest hint that the story actually knows where it’s all headed and that it’s naturally building towards a climax. It’s sloppy and doesn’t manage to build the sensation that you’re witnessing this weird, slightly supernatural adventure that’s unfolding through Anna’s summer vacation at her aunt and uncle’s place. There’s too much disconnect between the characters and the story itself. The sense of lingering, intangible ambiguity that surrounds the narrative simply doesn’t really seem to be intentional, and rather the opposite, like it was by accident and that only makes the story harder to enjoy.
The worst part of the movie is when they just start info dumping the back story to you for several minutes in a row in the third act, and you start to slowly realize just how contrived the entire story is. Instead of feeling like you’re slowly piecing together a puzzle as the story progresses, you can pretty much deduce the major twist plenty in advance, so at a certain point it almost becomes a chore to keep watching. Nothing is as boring as having to sit through several minutes of the movie point by point explaining the plot to you when you’ve already figured most of it out by yourself.
It almost feels like I’m being a bit too harsh on When Marnie Was There for not being able to live up to the company’s previous classics. But when you’re making a new Studio Ghibli feature, you really need to step up your game and be ready for the big League. That’s just how it is. Being passable just doesn’t cut it, so when you end up delivering such a mediocre product you deserve to be criticized. Especially when you had my hopes up.