Quite possibly the last theatrical release from Studio Ghibli, When Marnie Was There is a great way to go out. It recalls the quiet, graceful dignity and emotions of films like Kiki's Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro, as well as director Hiromasa Yonebayashi's own Arrietty, though I think this is an improvement over that (very fine) film. The dub, produced and released by GKids, is another in a long line of excellent dubs for the studio's films. In fact, I'd say it's the best one of these we've had in quite some time. I was quite fond of The Wind Rises and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya as both films and dubs, but outside of the glorious visuals (especially in the latter), they didn't quite strike the same nerve with me as Ghibli usually does. This, on the other hand, did, and for what reasons, I couldn't quite explain. The dub may or may not end up being a favorite of mine like, say, Kiki's, Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, but it's an excellent effort regardless from voice director Jamie Simone (who also did the Kaguya dub, and is a veteran of anime, Western cartoons and video games). The script is well-done, though I've been unable to find a credit for a writer; it sounds natural and flowing, though I couldn't say how it compares to the Japanese since the dub version is the only one I've seen so far.
ANNA SASAKI (Hailee Steinfeld)-Ever since her marvelous debut in the Coen Brothers' excellent remake of True Grit a few years ago, I've felt like subsequent films have really failed to take advantage of Hailee's unusual qualities as an actress, namely her quiet, intriguing stillness that hides great feeling and emotions. Her performance here reminded me that it's not really her fault; she just needs good material. At first glance, Hailee's voice seems a bit flat and monotone, but that suits Anna's morose self-loathing in the beginning stages of the film, and she manages to inject little signs of life when she tries to interact with other people, be it dutiful politeness or bitter anger. She opens up her voice and performance even more after meeting Marnie, leading to a powerful breakdown (complete with the trademark gushing tears that Ghibli is so great at animating), and then...things get better for her. Like Kiki and Chihiro before her, Anna is able to learn from her experiences, and exits the film a stronger, more mature (how she handles a potentially thorny situation is as graceful as Kiki's heroism or Chihiro's resourcefulness), and confident young woman, and Hailee reflects that wonderfully in her voice. A terrific lead performance.
MARNIE (Kiernan Shipka)-Kiernan, best known as Sally Draper from Mad Men, is no stranger to voice acting at this point, having done a fine job as Jinora for four seasons of The Legend of Korra, as well as guest spots on shows like Disney's Sofia the First. She has a light, clear voice that is both endearing and yet...suggests that there is more going on underneath the surface. This is appropriate for a character like Marnie, who hides secrets and says things that practically invite double meanings. Kiernan does an excellent job with navigating the various mysteries and intrigue of Marnie, leaving us never quite sure until almost the end of the film and its emotional twist what she's up to. She is by turns playful, remote, and wistful, often within the same scene, which seems like an acting rollercoaster. Yet Kiernan is able to make this all consistent, and the true power of her performance doesn't become clear until the very. Along with Hailee, this is probably one of the best "young girl lead" performances ever in a Ghibli dub.
KIYOMASA AND SETSU OIWA (John C. Reilly and Grey DeLisle-Griffin)-Wreck-It Ralph and Azula are married? Truly we are in strange times. Joking aside, Reilly and DeLisle are probably the highlights of the film's supporting cast, with Reilly's distinctive, jolly baritone and gruff sense of humor intact, and DeLisle bringing a cheerful optimism to Setsu (it reminded me more than a little of Osono from Kiki's). They are a good emotional anchor for Anna in the film, gently pushing her towards being more social, yet still being supportive when she'd rather draw by herself (the film does not comment on this, but the subtext seems to be that these are the parents Anna WISHED she had). Their gentle squabbling and support of Anna makes them a source of life and humor within the sometimes harsh world of the film, and so I was always glad to hear them. A+ supporting work.
YORIKO SASAKI (Geena Davis)-Barbara Maitland herself, Davis' Yoriko isn't in the film for a huge chunk of time, yet I felt she stood out as a character thanks to both the writing and the performance. Yoriko, you see, is not Anna's blood mother, but her foster parent, and receives a stipend from the government for taking care of Anna. One nice thing about all the older actresses in the dub is that they, so to speak, don't have to fake the age, and can just focus on their performances. Davis brings a loving, yet frightened and vulnerable quality to Yoriko; she truly does care for Anna, and is terrified of her finding out about the stipend because of the obvious questions that would raise. In point of fact, Anna already knows, and this is one of the major factors for her angst and moodiness throughout, but how this works out in the end is quite lovely. Geena nails the scene where they discuss this, sounding desperate and scared yet finding the love. It may not be big, but it's still quite a memorable little performance.
MRS. KADOYA (Kathy Bates)-Well, hearing Annie Wilkes in a Ghibli dub is about the last thing I expected. Like Geena Davis or two actresses we'll get too shortly, Ms. Bates isn't in the film for long, but she manages to do well with her scenes, at first ingratiating and nosy with Anna, then comically angry when accusing her of things she both did (unkindly called Nobuko a "fat pig", which to her credit she later apologizes for) and didn't do (pull a knife on Nobuko). Strong, if brief work.
NOBUKO (Raini Rodriguez)-A friendly, yet a bit oblivious local girl, Nobuko tries to be friends with Anna but is rebuffed, and Raini does a good job with this material, as well as her leadership role during a scene where schoolchildren are picking up trash by the river, and the quiet reconciliation she and Anna have at the end of the film. Not much more to say outside of "it's good work".
SAYAKA (Ava Acres)-A young girl who moves into Marnie's mansion about midway through the film, Sayaka is an incorrigible, curious, and energetic young girl who befriends Anna as they try and learn more about just what went on with her. 10 year-old Ava Acres brings her to life vocally, and next to the leads, Davis, and the Reilly/DeLisle duo, it's probably my favorite performance in the film. It could have come across as really annoying, but Ava makes Sayaka into a real highlight thanks to her cheerful energy and comic timing (my favorite bit is probably when she insists that ANNA is Marnie, and is put out when told otherwise).
HISAKO (Vanessa L. Williams)-A local painter who knows a lot about Marnie, Hisako is a calming influence in the latter part of the film, assisting Anna and Sayaka in their search for more knowledge on what exactly happened in that mansion. Vanessa has an older-sounding, yet soothing and relaxed voice, and this suits her wistful remembrance of times gone by very well. Again, brief but good.
NAN, OLDER WOMAN (Ellen Burstyn, Catherine O'Hara)-First off: Nan is a strict, bordering-on-abusive nanny tasked with looking after Marnie, and in her brief scenes, Burstyn's brittle, harsh voice and performance suits this character well. And then we have Catherine O'Hara, credited only as "Older Woman", which struck me as strange. Burstyn's role may have been small, but it was still a named character. Why would they hire a great actress like O'Hara for a "Soldier A"-type role? And then, during the final part of the film, it hit me: she must be the older Marnie, who we see in some crucial flashbacks. If I'm wrong about this, I'd be happy to be corrected, but I don't think I am. At any rate, O'Hara (if it is indeed her) does a fantastic job with her brief scenes, be it arguing with her daughter over her life choices, and then finding the combination of love and regret as Marnie interacts with her granddaughter. Thanks to her (as well as Anna's reaction to what she learns here), it's the first time Ghibli has hit the sweet spot of "me crying in the theater" in quite a long while.
The additional voices, from the likes of Bob Bergen, Elisa Gabrielli, Hope Levy, Fred Tatasciore, and others (I'm almost certain I heard Grey doubling up as Marnie's mother), are also well done. Overall, of the GKids Ghibli dubs, it's my favorite, and while I'm sad Disney didn't decide to pick up what might be Ghibli's swan song, they did a great job. Marnie is still in theaters at the time of this writing, so if it's playing near you, I highly recommend it, for both a great dub and a beautiful film.