There is a quality of enchantment to “When Marnie Was There” that can’t be faked, and that the studio behind this animated feature is justifiably famous for. With its latest release — a non-spooky ghost story set in a seaside fishing village — the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli has once again created a world where magic and imagination don’t just rule but are transformative.
Directed and co-written by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (“The Secret World of Arrietty”), “Marnie” shifts the action of British author and illustrator Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 book from coastal England to a marshy inlet outside Sapporo, Japan. There, among the ducks and dramatic tides, our reclusive 12-year-old orphan heroine Anna (voice of Hailee Steinfeld) has been sent, as a form of asthma therapy, by her foster mother Yoriko (Geena Davis).
While staying with Yoriko’s relatives (John C. Reilly and Grey Griffin) — from whom Anna feels disengaged, as she does from almost everyone — Anna meets a girl close to her age named Marnie (Kiernan Shipka). That Marnie lives in a mansion thought to be vacant, if not haunted, is our first sign that the mysterious blond girl is not all that she appears to be. That, and her oddly decades-out-of-fashion wardrobe.
Over the course of this meticulously constructed tale, which unpacks its secrets like a watchmaker taking apart a timepiece, Anna comes out of her shell, learns about Marnie and discovers something about her own past. The film feels like a great summer read: languid yet not un-urgent. It draws you into its world imperceptibly but inexorably, like the tide, the way the best books (and movies) do.
“When Marnie Was There” is a story of friendship, memory and self-discovery. It’s also something of a mystery — and not entirely without a goosebump-inducing moment or two, especially during one scene set in a haunted lighthouse during a rainstorm. It’s a kid’s movie that grown-ups will like. As Marnie does on Anna, the movie casts a spell.
PG. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains mature thematic material and smoking.
Matinee screenings are in English; evening screenings are in Japanese with subtitles.