All content (c) George Alexopoulos
except where otherwise mentioned.

  Writing > Movies


Mini-Review: "When Marnie Was There"
May 3, 2016



If I had been home alone at the end of When Marnie Was There, I would have wept loudly and openly, without restraint.

I didn't see it coming. For almost 80 minutes into its runtime, including a day-long intermission halfway through, I was genuinely concerned that this film would be another thirty-five dollar fumble ball. The notable absence of Studio Ghibli's seasoned veterans Directing reminded me too much of Tales of Earthsea (which I can't bring myself to watch out of disgust for Goro Miyazaki, after seeing Kingdom of Dreams and Madness) or The Secret World of Arrietty (which was well-made, but rather dry.)

The story of Marnie seemed to be slow and melodramatic; clichéd and almost soap opera-ish. The setting felt claustrophobic; limited to a small rural town built around a cove. The main character was whiny and hapless, apparently for no reason. I looked at the beautiful backgrounds and animation with genuine sadness, thinking, "Ghibli's last film is a dud."

Oh, was I wrong! The film is modest, to be sure - but it presented me with one of the biggest reversals I've experienced in a very long time. In only a few scenes my emotional radar went from resigned, to frightened, then alarmed, and finally awestruck. Like a masterful game of Tetris, the long first and second acts of the film revealed themselves to be a methodical construction. And then in the late third act, those Lines appeared. Tetris! Tetris! Tetris! My jaw hung open when I finally realized the true direction which the story was going in. "What is this...? Oh... wait... they're actually... OH! OHHHH!"

Every moment before the payoff became instantly justified. This is the kind of story that I adore: one which is enriched with repeat viewings. Marnie is a small treasure; not necessarily an epic masterpiece like Spirited Away or a cultural landmark like My Neighbor Totoro. It's more like my beloved Whisper of the Heart - an out-of-left-field surprise, like a trinket you find in your grandfather's old cabinet, years after he passed away. It's a little gem that you don't necessarily carry around or display, but rather something you lovingly keep in your collection, and look at with fondness and nostalgia.

For three times in a row, now, I've seen what I thought was Studio Ghibli's "last film". (And this one may really be it.) I cried at the end of The Wind Rises, I cried three times during The Tale of Princess Kaguya, and one last time at the end of Marnie. To clarify, I'm not a softie who is easily moved. I despise melodrama for its own sake, and have rolled my eyes at some films so hard, my TV turned itself off out of shame. No: With Marnie, we're talking about genuine tear-jerking goodness on the level of the opening scene of Up, or Jessie's Song in Toy Story 2. However, as a caveat: I only use those two Pixar films as loose reference - a measuring stick - because the majority of our friends in the west don't know that Pixar has a sensei - one whom they may never surpass.

So, let this mini-review count as my tiny little salute to Studio Ghibli. (At least for now.) I can't say it enough: They are the best animation studio in human history. Film for film, nobody has matched their superiority. It is a wretched shame that Ghibli wasn't more widely recognized during their prime, but that's okay. Neither was Akira Kurosawa, or Vincent Van Gogh, or Emily Dickinson, or to some extent even Da Vinci. Humanity needs time to absorb true excellence; whatever's popular today probably won't be tomorrow. It's the works that endure, which touch the hearts of people across oceans, language, culture and time, which are truly valuable.

I'm so proud to have films like Marnie in my collection - and I'm delighted to say that, because I was a doubter. Now all I need is Only Yesterday to complete my Library, and I can genuinely wallow in my grief that the world may not see another Ghibli for years to come. 

< Return to Writing
< Return to Index