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When Marnie Was There

Nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 88th Annual Academy Awards

You know, when you set the bar so high…   I don’t want to knock Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s “When Marnie Was There”, because it is actually quite good. It’s beautifully animated, as just about everything out of Studio Ghibli tends to be. And it is emotionally complicated, especially considering that it is a work intended for children. But as Yonebayashi’s sophomore effort as a director, after his marvelous debut with “Arrietty” (“The Secret World of Arrietty” when released in the States in early 2012), it’s just a little bit of a step down, and displays just a touch less of the magic we’ve come to expect. I can’t fault the visual and narrative quality of “When Marnie Was There”, especially as an Oscar antidote to the ‘Big Disney Machine’. But the transportive effect was somewhat lacking.

Anna Sasaki (voiced by Sara Takatsuki) is a young girl living with her foster parents in a large city in Japan. Believing that they only care about her for the financial subsidies they receive, Anna is often distant and unhappy. When a health issue occurs, Anna is sent to relatives for the summer to recover. They reside in a quiet, seaside town. Once there, Anna begins to have some unusual experiences upon spotting an abandoned mansion on the edge of the water. Visiting the estate one day, she eventually gets trapped there by the rising tide. Anna is saved by an old fisherman, but that night begins to have dreams of visiting the mansion, when it was fully grand and opulent. On those nocturnal trips, she befriends a young girl named Marnie, who helps unlock secrets from Anna’s past.

Again, Yonebayashi is the victim of his own success here. Outside of his two rides behind the camera, he also spent years as a chief animator on some of the great final works of the master, Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a tough act to follow. Plus, the pace is often too deliberate, and the storyline decidedly heavily European in nature (the film is based on a book from British author, Joan G. Robinson). “When Marnie Was There” may be the final release from the renowned Studio Ghibli, as they’ve halted new productions after the retirement of the legendary Mr. Miyazaki. So, Mr. Yonebayashi is probably at an unfair disadvantage, just by fact of the prestigious company he’s following. In other words, even focusing on its strengths, “When Marnie Was There” is no “Spirited Away” or “The Wind Rises”. Then again, very few animated features are. So, please take a look anyway, at this unlikely Oscar contender. And please experience it, in its original Japanese.

Grade:  B+

next review up: “Hail, Caesar!”

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