When Marnie Was There (and five other indie animations you need to see)
Every time a new animation from the much-loved Studio Ghibli arrives, it's difficult not to get excited. The Japanese animation studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki has produced some of the most unique and beautiful animated films ever committed to celluloid over the three decades since its foundation in 1985, not to mention some of the best-selling; Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke held the Japanese box office record for years up until the release of Titanic, only to break the record again with another of his greatest films, Spirited Away.
But in 2014, the year in which When Marnie Was There was first released in cinemas, the film's arrival was accompanied with a pang of sadness because, following Miyazaki's announcement that he intended to retire, the future looked bleak for the animation studio. Fans of Studio Ghibli's work were hardly encouraged when the director later stated that while he had not intended his retirement to signal the end of the studio's output, he thought that “the era of pencil, paper and film is coming to an end.” For a while, it seemed like When Marnie Was There might be the last time we ever got to see a new Studio Ghibli film.
However, all is not lost; while the studio's future is still a little unclear, rumours of its demise appear to have been exaggerated – in fact, a new collaboration between the studio and Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit named Red Turtle emerged earlier this year and was included in the Un Certain Regard selection at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It also seems that Miyazaki is something of a restless retiree, still spending most of days in the animation studio, according to reports from his colleagues. Still, whether or not Studio Ghibli is able to continue long term - and we sincerely hope it is - it does mean that When Marnie Was There is a thing to be savoured.
Like many of Studio Ghibli's films, When Marnie Was There features a young female protagonist. Anna is an introverted and emotionally distant young 12-year-old living with her foster parents who is sent to spend the summer with relatives who live in a remote rural area by the sea, following an asthma attack she has at school.
While there she discovers a dilapidated old mansion which, she discovers, used to belong to a foreign family, but has been abandoned for years. However, one night she sees lights on in the mansion and the house looks new. When she investigates she befriends a girl called Marnie, who may or may not be real. It isn't clear at first whether Marnie is a ghost or just a figment of her imagination, but what follows for Anna is a journey of discovery about herself that is, in typical Studio Ghibli fashion, both heartwarming and enlightening.
Like all their films, When Marnie Was There is beautifully animated and brilliantly written, not to mention totally absorbing, but even if it does turn out that the end is near for Studio Ghibli, don't despair; there are still plenty of indie animations in a similar vein to enjoy. You can find a trailer for When Marnie Was There below, beneath that we've listed five others you should check out if you haven't already...
Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Iranian author Marjanne Satrapi, Persepolis is Satrapi's autobiographical story of growing up in Iran and experiencing the changes brought about by the Iranian revolution. If you think that sounds like a dry subject for an animated feature film, think again; Persepolis is charming and surprisingly funny in places, especially given the heavy subject matter, but it's also a unique view into the internal conflict of Iran told from a very human perspective.
Chico & Rita
This Oscar-nominated animation from directors Fernando Trueba, Javier Mariscal and Tono Errando tells the story of a young jazz pianist and a talented singer whose love for each other is tested by a series of challenges including the perils of success and battles against the U.S. authorities determined to return Chico to his native Cuba. The film is a spellbinding tale of love in the face of adversity and features a soundtrac that includes music by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Cole Porter. This is a must-see for anyone with a love of jazz and latin music, or anyone looking for a different twist on the themes of love and loss.
Song of the Sea
Irish animator/director Tomm Moore's second feature film is a charming adventure story about a boy named Ben and his younger sister Saorise and their journey to escape the clutches of their mean, city-dwelling grandmother and return to their home, a journey that leads them to discover a world of magic and meet some intriguing characters of Irish folklore. The film received an Oscar nomination and features a voice cast that includes Brendan Gleeson, David Rawle and singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan. If you've never seen Moore's films before, this is a great place to start and we'd also recommend his debut feature The Secret of Kells.
Mary & Max
This stop-motion animation from Australian director Adam Elliot is hilarious and heartwarming tale of a young, lonely girl living in a remote area where she struggles to make friends. The other kids at school tease her because of her glasses and an unfortunate birthmark on her forehead and her parents – and alcoholic father and kleptomaniac mother – aren't much help either. To remedy this she decides to find a pen-pal and picks a random name from a New York telephone directory, an obese 44-year-old Jewish man named Max Horrowitz (voiced by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), striking up an unlikely friendship. If you're a fan of Nick Park's films but fancy something a little different, this is brilliant viewing.
The Iron Giant
Our final pick is, technically, a bit of a cheat on the 'indie' front as Warner Bros. did have a hand in the film, but any Studio Ghibli fans will find Brad Bird's excellent animation about an alien robot who crash-lands on earth and befriends a young American boy utterly compelling. Set in the 1950s during the height of McCarthyist paranoia about communist infiltration in the United States, the film is not only a heartwarming tale of friendship but also a biting commentary on arrogance of government, and with the film receiving the remaster treatment in 2015 the new version is visually stunning too.