A movie review of “When Marnie Was There”: This anime tale from Studio Ghibli follows a lonely 12-year-old girl befriended by a mysterious golden-haired beauty.

Share story

Beneath its calm, exquisitely detailed surface, “When Marnie Was There” bubbles with half-formed ideas and undeveloped themes. Suggestion and subtext jostle for attention, and the extent to which they intrude will depend mainly on the age of the viewer.

To the tinies, this gorgeously animated adaptation of a 1967 young-adult novel by British author Joan G. Robinson will seem a simple tale of friendship found and unhappiness banished. Others, however, could experience the story’s sweetly supernatural drift as a veil for gnarlier intimations of child abuse, sexual awakening, ethnic confusion and even mental illness.

Possibly the last feature of its kind from the much-lauded Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli (whose founders, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, recently announced their retirement), “Marnie” is psychologically darker and less fantastical than most of the studio’s previous output.

Movie Review

‘When Marnie Was There,’ with Sara Takatsuki, Kasumi Arimura (Japanese cast); Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka (English cast). Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, from a screenplay by Yonebayashi, Keiko Niwa and Masashi Ando, based on a book by Joan G. Robinson. 103 minutes. Rated PG for thematic elements and smoking. Two versions: In Japanese, with English subtitles; and dubbed in English. SIFF Cinema Egyptian.

The New York Times does not provide star ratings with reviews.

Its emphasis on the richness of nature and the fortitude of young girls, though, remains intact as Anna, an asthmatic 12-year-old, is sent to live with relatives. Orphaned at a young age, Anna is an unusually prickly heroine who simmers with self-loathing. Sulking outside the “invisible magic circle” inhabited by her peers, she pours all her emotions — including spikes of violence — into her drawings.

But when Anna meets Marnie, a golden-haired beauty with an unsettling tendency to appear and disappear at odd moments, everything changes. Seduced by Marnie’s ardent attentions, Anna barely notices their ominous undertones or her own lapses in memory whenever her new friend is around.

“Marnie” is a muddled merger of ghost story, fantasy, time travel and coming-of-age. Fighting all of these, however, is a first-love story. This becomes quite explicit when Anna, perpetually dressed like a boy, jealously watches Marnie dance with a young man, then questions their mutual devotion.

But director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (perhaps mindful of appealing to younger children), only flirts with this and other, thornier undercurrents, like the suggestion of Marnie’s abuse at the hands of her forbidding maid and the fury with which Anna responds to the suggestion that her eyes are almost blue.

The result is a movie that’s neither eventful enough for little ones nor ripe enough for teenagers. The conclusion is rushed and poorly staged, yet the damp caul of loneliness that envelops the film’s early scenes feels moving and true.