Sunday, March 06, 2016

OVP: When Marnie Was There (2015)

Film: When Marnie Was There (2015)
Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Vanessa Williams, Catherine O'Hara, John C. Reilly, Geena Davis, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Bates
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Animated Feature Film)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

It's bizarre welcoming in what may well be the final Studio Ghibli film (I'm still stumped as to why the studio feels it can't function any longer without Hayao Miyazaki at the helm, but that's a discussion for a different day), and I suspect that the nostalgia for decades of quality entertainment made this an easy nomination that a lot of Oscar pundits failed to anticipate this past season.  The film's narrative is classic Ghibli, with enough magical realism thrown in amidst a story of a struggling young girl who can't find a way to fit in or acknowledge her status as a child of foster parents.  The movie's artistry is on clear display, even if its plotting is a bit off and not quite to the caliber I would have expected for a film that displaced the blockbuster likes of The Peanuts Movie and The Good Dinosaur.

(Spoilers Ahead) The problems here lie in the hopeless predictability of the main character, Anna (Steinfeld, and yes I got the English-dubbed version rather than the Japanese even though I always prefer the original-it's so difficult to find in the United States though!).  Anna is a girl who is raised by loving foster parents, though they receive money as a result of their status as foster parents from the government, which makes Anna distant and aloof.  They send her, as she suffers from asthma, to the country to live with relatives, and while there she comes across an abandoned mansion which feels deeply familiar to her and which occasionally is well-lit and restored to its former glory.  Eventually we learn that a girl lives there that only Anna can see named Marnie (Shipka), and along the way we find out that the girl is in fact the ghost of her grandmother, who is haunted by the fact that she cannot disconnect from the past, and in particular her horrible relationship with Anna's mother.  As the film progresses, everyone finds absolution, including Anna and Marnie, and the film ends happily with Anna moving on with her loving foster parents, realizing that there is family there.

The film's plot, though, is apparent from the outset.  It's pretty obvious, especially since the film underlines with a bold pen that Anna is biracial, that this girl is in some way her relative and likely her grandmother, and so a lot of the mystery, which is a big part of the story, feels taxing and starts to drag because you've already filled in all of the gaps.  When it finally comes time for the big reveal it felt a little like the finales on every season of Desperate Housewives-we'd already pieced together every angle so what was the point in replaying it like a recap?  The characters also get lost in translation a little bit, as it's not apparent why Anna suddenly realizes that her parents had received money from the government (do these children not understand such things?), and why she has such violent, cruel outbursts to those around her but not to Marnie.  The main character doesn't have the 3-dimensional appeal that I've come to expect from Studio Ghibli, which is disappointing.

The artistry on-display is, of course, divine, but even here it's questionable whether we're hitting new heights.  The film exhibits none of the inventiveness of Inside Out, the beauty of The Good Dinosaur, nor the perfect nostalgia of The Peanuts Movie.  The film plays with yellow and blue in some fun ways, particularly in the way the lake looks at night, but the movie's painting is just so-so and never comes close to, say, The Wind Rises which was so sensational a few years ago.  Overall I feel like any pangs of love I had for the film were tinged by memories of the movies that came before it, and sadness that this might be my last trip with such an important artistic force.

Those are my thoughts on When Marnie Was There-how about yours?  Where does it rank in your personal Studio Ghibli lineup?  Do you think they'll ever reopen?  And how do you think this beat out Peanuts and Dinosaur for a coveted Oscar slot?  Share your theories in the comments!

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