When shy, artistic Anna moves to the seaside to live with her aunt and uncle, she stumbles upon an old mansion surrounded by marshes, and the mysterious young girl, Marnie, who lives there. The two girls instantly form a unique connection and friendship that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. As the days go by, a nearly magnetic pull draws Anna back to the Marsh House again and again, and she begins to piece together the truth surrounding her strange new friend. Based on the beloved young adult novel by Joan G. Robinson and directed by Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty), the film is a haunting tale gorgeously rendered with its moonlit seascapes, glowing orchestral score, and powerful portrayals of friendship and belonging.
Awash with emotion, I strain to write this review. 'When Marnie was There,' is honestly one of the most tender, endearing films I've ever seen. As hyperbolic as that may sound, let me assure you, no hyperbole is intended. The way this movie deals with grief, sorrow, depression, and anxiety is something of a miracle. The only other film that comes close to replicating the kind of inner turmoil that exists in a teenager's brain is Pixar's 'Inside Out.' And even then, 'Marnie' is much more realistic and possibly even more thoughtful.
Directed by Studio Ghibli's Hiromasa Yonebayashi ('The Secret World of Arrietty), 'Marnie' takes a different approach to the heroine. But before we get into that, can we all agree that no one develops female protagonists quite like Studio Ghibli? Their history with heroines has created a deep repository of films featuring strong-willed female leads. Over the years they made their name by crafting a filmography that centered on independent girls taking command.
Now on to 'Marnie' which slightly departs from the norm. See, Anna (voiced by Hailee Steinfeld) isn't your typical stalwart heroine type. She's struggling mightily with depression. A few key scenes show Anna experiencing crippling anxiety. She's unable to interact with other girls her age. Her inner monologue announces that she "hates" herself. It's all very real, and extremely well done. There's nothing overly melodramatic about Anna's plight. She's a real teenage girl with real-world clinical depression. She withdraws into herself. She's sketches like a professional artist, but doesn't feel like her drawings are good enough to share publicly. It's tough to watch her suffer only because the way it's handled seems so authentic.
In order to get her some help, Anna's foster mother sends her to the countryside to live with some friends. Her asthma flares up whenever her panic attacks strike, the doctor thinks some fresh air for the summer will do Anna some good.
Much like the two young girls in 'My Neighbor Totoro,' Anna is confronted with a new place seemingly imbued with magical properties. There's a large mansion near the lake and Anna is drawn to it for some unknown reason. She can't stop sketching it. It appears empty, until one night when lights are on and Anna catches a glimpse of a striking blonde-haired girl named Marnie (voiced by Kiernan Shipka). The two of them form a loving friendship that feels utterly genuine. Except there's something mysterious about Marnie and the house she's living in.
On top of being an intellectual journey into the mind of mental illness, 'When Marnie was There' also happens to be a cracking mystery offering up a genre-bending story that's impossible to pigeonhole. I'm still thinking about it long after watching it, trying to fit the narrative puzzle pieces together.
The animation though, that's the true winner here. I could go on and on about the screenplay its themes and ideas, but that would leave too little time to discuss the artistry on display here. Yes, all of Studio Ghibli's titles are stunningly beautiful in their own way how dare they be so predictable! And yet again they've put out another gorgeously animated film. There isn't a wasted frame in this movie. It's filled with such beauty that it's impossible to single out any one sequence in the film and point to it. The depth that they've created with two-dimensional animation puts even the best CGI to shame. This is one of those movie that you could freeze frame at any moment and instantly have a frameable image.
From the striking perfection of its animation to its deft dissection of the teenage brain 'When Marnie was There' moved me more than many of the movies I've seen this year. If this indeed is Studio Ghibli's last film it was a perfect send-off.
Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Released by Universal Studios 'When Marnie was There' comes in a 2-disc set – a 50GB Blu-ray and a DVD. There is a slipcover included also.
Nothing less than a perfect transfer would be suitable for a film this beautiful. Thankfully, Universal's 1080p transfer is just that. Every elegant landscape and dazzling vista is boldly rendered. The artistry here is the priority so it's imperative that this transfer be flawless.
The detail here is exquisite. How the foreground and backgrounds mesh with each other creating the illusion of depth is amazing. The lines are exact. Color fills are unwavering. The film's color palate is filled with vivid color choices, each one presented impeccably. Black levels are stunning and void of any artificial noise, banding, or errant pixel.
As Anna runs or rain thrashes the sky, the motion of the animation is never halted in any way. The movement is seamless. Jitters or double-vision are non-existent. This is simply a perfect visual presentation. One that you'll want to use as demo material for sure.
So, something that's just a little strange here: neither the Japanese or English track feature actual channel support for the sub-woofer. That's right both the Japanese and English tracks use a seldom-seen DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 mix. While this might turn off some of those that enjoy to feel the rumble of their subs it shouldn't deter you from checking out this release.
In fact, many of the scenes that would most likely employ that mission ".1" – like a thunderstorm, for instance – are still provided a good sense of low-end heft that's handled admirably by the other channels. Though it is noticeable that your sub-woofer is sitting there silent when it could be doing so much more.
The rest of the film sounds great though. Surrounds capture the life of the countryside wonderfully. Birds caw in the distance, wind howls during storms, water lightly splashes around a row boat's oars. Dialogue is just as clear with even nuanced voice inflexions being easily heard.
Yeah, it's strange that it's a 5.0 mix, however, the mix just about makes up for any deficiencies caused by the missing sub.
The Making of 'When Marnie was There' (HD, 43 min.) – A wonderfully in-depth look at Studio Ghibli, how this film fits into its rich filmography and the creative process that went into crafting the story and animation. Fans of the studio will definitely want to give this one a look.
Yohei Taneda Creates the Art of 'When Marnie was There' (HD, 17 min.) – Here we get a summarized version of the script which is accompanied by Taneda's artwork.
Feature-Length Storyboards (HD, 1 hr. 43 min.) – This is the entire movie presented in stoyboards.
Behind the Scenes with the Voice Cast (HD, 13 min.) – The well-known voice actors that perform the English dub discuss the story and briefly talk about the characters they portray. Sort of like a promo featurette, but long enough to provide some substance.
Foreign Trailers and TV Spots (HD, 6 min.) – There are seven different Japanese (English subtitles provided) trailers and TV previews included here.
US Trailer (HD, 2 min.) – The trailer that was released in America is also included.
'When Marnie was There' is a mesmerizing film for so many reasons, from its splendid animation to its stark portrayal of a struggling mind. It transfixed me. What a wonderful film, really. In addition, it's been given a solid Blu-ray release with flawless visuals, determined audio (even without the hardcore bass), and a decent list of extras. This one is highly recommended.