When the Magic Lantern reopens, as it is supposed to do today, not only will it feature a new digital but it will also screen the latest — perhaps the last — animated effort from Japan's acclaimed Studio Ghibli. My review of the film, "When Marnie Was There," which I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, follows:
In the realm of movie animation, several names rise above the rest. Walt Disney, obviously. Chuck Jones, too. And any list, by necessity, has to include the name Hayao Miyazaki.
None of these individual animators worked alone. They may have been more innovators, leaders of their respective teams – Disney Studios, say, or Warner Bros.’ animation arm – but in the end the influence each had on the genre of animation may have been as important as any goal each may have personally achieved.
Take Miyazaki. The Studio Ghibli productions he directed are among the greatest animated films ever made: “Castle in the Sky,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Princess Mononoke” and the Oscar-winning “Spirited Away.”
Yet the studio is responsible for a number of other notable animated exercises. Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “The Secret World of Arriety,” for example, or “From Up on Poppy Hill,” which was directed by Miyazaki’s son, Goro Miyazaki. Or arguably the greatest of the bunch, Isao Takahata’s masterful study of war, “Grave of the Fireflies.”
That’s all in the past. A year ago, news reports broke that – along with the announcement of the elder Miyazaki’s retirement – the studio itself was closing. Almost as quickly, reports broke that the studio was merely “taking a break.” Whatever Studio Ghibli’s long-term status is, the short term has brought us a new film, “When Marnie Was There,” which is scheduled to open today at the Magic Lantern Theater.
Based on a 1967 English young-adult novel of the same name, “When Marnie Was There” tells the story of a 12-year-old girl named Anna who doesn’t have the most positive self image. In fact, she hates herself. As the film progresses, we gradually learn the reasons for this. But at first, she just seems troubled – and a tad ungrateful to her foster mother, whom she refers to merely as her “auntie.”
Concerned over her foster daughter’s asthma, and her dark moods, Anna’s auntie sends her from the city of Sapporo to a small, ocean-side village to live with friends, the remarkably upbeat Oiwas. Content only when she is sketching, and following an abortive attempt by Mrs. Oiwa to connect her with some local children, Anna remains alone – but fascinated by a battered mansion that stands on the marshy coastline.
It is at this ghostly mansion, which at turns is dark and deserted and then full of light and life, that Anna meets the mysterious Marnie – who, as it turns out, becomes not just her occasional BFF but also the key to everything Anna was and is.
The themes that director Yonebayashi explores in “When Marnie Was There” aren’t as clearly defined, or resolved, as his previous film, 2010’s “The Secret World of Arriety” – much less anything by Miyazaki. Feeling both overfull and underwritten, even while delving into such serious subjects as child abandonment and abuse, “Marnie” also bears a certain sense of the predictable.
Yet the animation that Yonebayashi utilizes, from shots of moonlight reflected off the sea to a storm hitting a seemingly haunted silo, represent classic Studio Ghibli: the cartoon as actual art.