There’s a lovely and fitting simplicity in 12-year-old Anna emerging as the heroine of When Marnie Was There, the last film from Japan’s Studio Ghibli animation house. (The company has placed production on hiatus while it reorganizes following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki). Anna (voiced in the U.S. dub by Hailee Steinfeld) keeps to herself, distanced from the adoptive mother who she only calls “auntie,” and likes to draw, seeming to prefer the company of her sketch pad to most people. Early in the movie, she has an asthma attack, though the “condition” her foster parents refer to could easily be depression or social anxiety. The movie spends a lot of time with Anna on her own, wriggling out of social obligations and shunning any potential friends or sidekicks. It’s a portrait of a lonely artist as a young girl.
Following her asthma attack, Anna’s worried parents send her to spend the summer out of town with relatives and breathe some fresher air. Wandering around rural Kushiro, Anna discovers a seemingly abandoned mansion across the marsh, and with it the mysterious Marnie (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka in the U.S. dub), a blond-haired girl her own age. Anna and Marnie fall into an intense, immediate friendship, sneaking off to share what Marnie calls their “precious secret,” which mainly consists of them hanging around the marsh and asking each other limited questions about their lives. The mix of secrecy and intimacy is touching, especially because the movie has paid so much attention to Anna’s moody self-loathing—it’s almost a third of the way through before Marnie appears.
It’s clear early on that Marnie, who has a habit of disappearing and reappearing suddenly, may not be a normal 12-year-old. There are faint Cinderella overtones, with a temporarily lost shoe and a beautiful ball. But When Marnie Was There never crosses into fairy-tale territory; little of it really requires animation to tell its story the way Disney or even other Ghibli productions often do. Instead, the painterly animation style gives Anna’s summer a slightly dreamlike quality, as director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World Of Arrietty) effectively blurs the lines between the unfamiliarity of a new place and the otherworldly quality of a child’s imagination.
That imagination is where the movie falls short of some of its studio stablemates. Eventually, Anna takes a more active role in figuring out where her new friend comes from, and the answers she finds should pack considerable feeling. But the revelations often feel more technical than emotional—particularly in the way the movie withholds information from both its characters and the audience before releasing it in a flood of exposition. That strategy relies on a degree of calculation imposed on ideas of memory and loss, and while nitpicking the logic of a fable-like story may be foolish, some details of Marnie’s backstory don’t make a lot of sense.
In its final stretch, it starts feeling like Yonebayashi is working from a poignancy checklist. As much as Studio Ghibli movies have a reputation among animation fans for being more sophisticated than the average American studio cartoon, When Marnie Was There only goes so far in that department. As a children’s movie, it’s uncommonly sensitive and complicated, rooted in relationships rather than dazzling action. But adults may notice its simple poetry turning, after a while, to suds.