Monday, February 8, 2016

Film Review: When Marnie Was There vs. Inside Out

When Marnie Was There
  • Publisher: Toho (JP), GKIDS / Universal (NA) 
  • Production Company: Studio Ghibli 
  • Genre: Drama 
  • Release: 19 July 2014 (JP), 22 May 2015 (NA) 
  • Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi 
  • Producers: Yoshiaki Nishimura, Toshio Suzuki 
  • Writers: Masashi Andō, Keiko Niwa, Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Inside Out
  • Publisher: Disney 
  • Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures / Pixar Animation Studios 
  • Genre: Comedy / Drama 
  • Release: 19 June 2015 
  • Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen 
  • Producer: Jonas Rivera 
  • Writers: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

Welp, another year, another Academy Awards ceremony. And you know what that means: they're gonna give the Best Animated Feature award to the Disney/Pixar behemoth. It happened to Frozen over The Wind Rises, it happened to Big Hero 6 over The Tale of The Princess Kaguya, and odds are it'll happen again. I've been preparing for the worst, especially since the "big one" of 2015, Pixar's Inside Out, is going up against When Marnie Was There, the last feature film Studio Ghibli may ever make. In a past article, I told you how I saw Marnie in theatres, despite its limited release, and enjoyed it. Well, in the interest of voting with my wallet, I refused to do the same for Inside Out, even when they gave it an encore run for Labor Day. Eventually I rented the movie and, I'm ashamed to say it... it was awesome. But then I realised something: both Marnie and Inside Out tackle the same basic story in different ways. Marnie focuses on the characters themselves, whereas Inside Out focuses on what's going on inside the main character's mind, with her personified emotions. So, I thought, now would be the best time to do another joint review on the two movies. That way, I can pre-empt the Academy more substantially than just a joke at the end of my last article.

In When Marnie Was There, our central character is Anna "no, not that one" Sasaki (EN: Hayley Steinfeld, JP: Sara Takatsuki), a twelve-year-old girl living in Hokkaido, who is shy but loves drawing. When she suffers an athsma attack, her foster parents send her to live out to a seaside village with her aunt and uncle. While exploring her new surroundings, she comes across a dilapidated mansion, and in the window, a blonde girl of her age named Marnie (EN: Kiernan Shipka, JP: Kasumi Arimura). Over the next few nights, she starts spending time with Marnie, building their freindship and uncovering the mysteries behind Marnie's life, as well as her own.

So yeah, Marnie sticks rather closely to the Ghibli playbook. But, as it turns out, this movie was based on a novel of the same name, written by the British author Joan G. Robinson in 1967. Studio Ghibli has adopted Western literature before; Howl's Moving Castle and The Secret World of Arietty (a.k.a. The Borrowers) spring to mind. The central plot device of Marnie, if there is one, is figuring out what the deal is with its titular character. Is she a real girl? Is she a ghost? Is she a figment of Anna's imagination? Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Without wishing to spoil, the way they explain all of this in the final act is kind of rushed. I mean, Anna doesn't even start her investigation into Marnie's past until halfway through the movie!
The feels that Marnie generates are weapons-grade.
But what the film lacks in a good overarcing plot, it makes up for in the individual moments that comprise the plot. When I was watching, I found myself lost in the emotions of the main characters: joy when they're playing together, sadness when they're sharing their darkest secrets, and bittersweet resignation when it's time for Anna to leave. (Sort of like Ghibli themselves.) To put it another way, this is what I wished Frozen was like when reviewed it: it focuses solely on its two main characters and how they develop together. And I have to give a shout-out to the foley artist, because the sound effects in this movie are amazing. For some reason, I don't normally notice this sort of thing, but when certain scenes go on without music and even dialog, you have to notice them. And from the waves lapping at the creaking wood of a rowboat, the sound effects do even more to build upon the ambience of some scenes.

Having re-watched When Marnie Was There, I seem to have enjoyed it less than I did at first. If it wanted to have the mystery of Marnie be its driving plot thread, they should have spaced out its developments more evenly across the film, rather than bunch them all up near the end. And some of Anna's behaviours are downright bizarre, although I suppose they do illustrate the gaping void in her mental state that only Marnie can fill. In conclusion, is it Studio Ghibli's best effort? Probably not, although they have set the bar so phenomenally high for themselves in the past, mind you. If you don't mind not having a strong plot to hook you from one scene to the next, and can get by on the scenes themselves, I would still recommend When Marnie Was There.

Meanwhile, in Inside Out, our central character is Riley Andersen (Kaitlyn Dias), an eleven-year-old girl living in Minnesota, who is goofy but honest, and loves hockey. The difference here is that much of the movie is, in fact, portrayed from the point of view of personified emotions living in her head. In order of introduction, they are Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). These emotions control Riley's actions at the appropriate moments, generating memories tied to those emotions. But then, everything changes when when her family moves to San Francisco. Due to a series of unfortunate events, Joy and Sadness get stranded together outside their headquarters and must venture back somehow.

The world of Riley's psyche is nothing short of a joy to behold. Functions of the brain are illustrated in inventive ways, such as the formation of memories, ideas, personality traits, and dreams. A highlight is when Joy and Sadness wander into a section of Riley's mind where new general ideas abstracted from specific ones. In the movie, this means that Joy and Sadness are devolved into low-polygon and eventually 2D forms as they try to escape. Sure, nothing comes about from it in practice and it is never brought up again (making it the movie's "Big Lipped Alligator Moment"), but the process they go through shows great research of psychology on the part of the writers. I mean, as far as I know about psychology. We also get to see glimpses of similar mental setups of different characters here and there, each tailored to their own personality.
Inside Out's settings look like they came straight from the mind of Willy Wonka -- almost literally.
What Inside Out has over Marnie is how it manages to create suspence to hook the viewer in. For example, in Riley's head there exist five "personality islands", depicting her interests and personality traits. Over the course of her mental breakdown, the island crumble into the bottomless pit below. We are told that whatever falls down there, i.e. memories that are no longer needed, can never return. But later on in the story, Joy falls down there herself, where said pit is decidedly non-bottomless, and of course she comes back out of it. And of course she does it with the help of someone who sacrifices himself to let her escape. So, it would seem that Inside Out isn't above employing the odd sappy cliche here and there, albeit rarely. Although I will give them credit for actually showing her eventual mode of egress falling into the pit earlier on. Let that be but one example of Pixar's attention to detail.

While I'm nitpicking, isn't it a bit lopsided for Riley to have one "positive" emotion, namely Joy, and four "negative" ones, especially when the one Joy gets stuck with, Sadness, has a bad habit of converting memories to sad ones by touching them? To the film's credit, and without wishing to spoil, they do address this. Speaking of the emotions, one of the most important things to keep in mind when assembling a cast of voice actors is for each actor to sound distinct from one another. I'm proud to say that this is another of Inside Out's strengths. Amy Poehler was perfectly cast as Joy, although I did love her on Saturday Night Live to begin with. The other emotion characters also manage to bring their titular personality traits through by their voice alone.

My prejudices against CG animation being what they are, "pleasantly surprised" doesn't begin to describe my experience with Inside Out. Mind you, Marnie managed to get those emotions across to the viewer without needing to personify them. But if you ask me, Inside Out had the better story, and getting to witness such creative sights along the way was a bonus. There are a few stupid or silly moments to nitpick, but they are rare and don't represent the film as a whole. All things considered, I would recommend both films for different reasons. If you want straight-up, weapons-grade feels, try out When Marnie Was There. If you want a gripping story to go with those feels, go with Inside Out. It's a big world out there, certainly big enough for both of them.

When Marnie Was There

+ Individual scenes are packed with emotion.
+ Deals with a number of complex themes.
+ Brilliant sound-effect work.

- For less patient viewers, it lacks a suspenceful hook.
- Retreads more than a few story tropes covered by past Ghibli films.
- The rushed conclusion.

Acting: 4 emotions out of 5
Writing: 3 emotions out of 5
Design: 4 emotions out of 5
Audiovisual: 5 emotions out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Inside Out

+ Well-researched and creative interpretations of the brain's functions.
+ Terriffic voice-acting that complements each character's personality.

- It has a few minor plot holes.

Acting: 5 emotions out of 5
Writing: 4 emotions out of 5
Design: 5 emotions out of 5
Audiovisual: 5 emotions out of 5
The Call: 95% (A)

In the end, I may not like to admit it, but not only do I think Inside Out is the better movie, I probably wouldn't lose sleep if it won the Best Animated Feature Oscar. But that's not the whole story. There's this thing called the Annie Awards, which has been going on since 1972, and honours animation in movies, television, and even video games. Ghibli's movies have been nominated for the Annie's Best Animated Feature awards several times over, and just like in the Oscars, failed to actually win.

But this time around, for the 43rd Annie Awards held on 6 February 2016, they added a new category: "Best Animated Feature - Independent", and I'm glad they did. This means that films with lower profiles but bigger hearts don't have to compete against our mainstream monstrosities. Not that such "mainstream monstrosities" can't also have heart, as we learned in this article. But the important thing is that now, for once, the underdogs have a more level playing field.

Oh, and for the record, the winner of the independent award was the Brazilian feature Boy and the World. It looks great, but given the fate of Studio Ghibli, I can't help but feel a little disappointed... Studio Ghibli may be dead, or just in a coma depending on whim you talk to, but another door to the wider world of animation is opening to us. Let's keep opening more doors, shall we?

This is IchigoRyu.

You are the resistance.

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