Directed by Ghibli veteran Hiromasa Yonebayashi instead of studio founder and icon Hayao Miyazaki, When Marnie Was There might lack the incredible designs found in something like Spirited Away but it's telling a smaller story. Anna's problems are so internal that a belching sea dragon would not have worked at all, and those problems are fully realized by the writing and Steinfeld's plaintive performance. Anna's pain reaches out of the screen and grabs the viewer's heart, as empathetic as anything Ghibli's ever done. The film's central question, stated earlier, is primal, as many adults can remember childhood alienation, and the swirling cycle of doubt and social fear that emanates from it. Just as Yonebayashi expertly communicates Anna's problems, so too does he get across the exhilaration of seeing what might be that alienation's end. Anna is skeptical initially, as dashed hope would be just as bad as continued misery, but she gradually gives herself over to Marnie's effervescence, which opens her up for other potential friendships that lack the temporal iffiness of Marnie herself.
While When Marnie Was There isn't overly fantastical, it does retain Ghibli's tactile animated beauty. Stunning land- and seascapes beckon the characters to explore them, and depictions of Japanese holiday celebrations communicate plenty of lived-in detail to unfamiliar American viewers. Yonebayashi includes rural tableaus of warmth and connection with ease, making something as simple as an aunt and a niece chopping tomatoes together tug on the heartstrings. A classic Ghibli character emerges around the film's midpoint in Sayaka (Ava Acres), an expressive, bespectacled girl brimming with confidence and capable at her young age of walking into a room and taking it over. Her huge eyes and inquisitive manner would make her the protagonist in other Ghibli films, but with this more introspective outing, she's a welcome antidote to Anna, lightening an otherwise heavy film.
The rumored shuttering of Studio Ghibli is an obvious blow to cinema, but even moreso when something like When Marnie Was There comes along and demonstrates that the studio is just as capable of greatness as at any point in its history. This was a truly beautiful film that builds to a revelatory climax, opening the floodgates after what was already a powerful experience. Hayao Miyazaki may be retired, but his life's work is in good hands. A-