While there’s nothing wrong with Sanzoku no Musume Ronja apart from one very obvious exception, honestly compels me to say that I hope this isn’t the last project we ever see from Studio Ghibli. It’s not that Ronja is terrible by any means – it’s not – but to have the most successful anime studio in history close the book on its creative output with a full CGI TV series after having diligently stuck to hand-drawn in Japan animation for many decades would be, well – a travesty. It simply wouldn’t be right. I’d much rather have the sublime Kaguyahime no Monogatari be the studio’s farewell (though Omoide no Marnie was perfectly decent) if we must have one – though of course I’d rather not have to say farewell at all.
You can’t talk about Sanzoku no Musume Ronja without talking about the elephant in the room, and that’s named Polygon. That’s the 3D Animation studio that did 100% of the animation for Ronja, just as it did for Sidonia no Kishi. And as with Sidonia, the backgrounds are lovely, the big set pieces look fine, and the character animation is abysmal. It may be a shade better here than in Sidonia, though I suspect that’s more to do with far better character designs (by Ghibli stalwart Kondo Katsuya) than anything else.
There’s a surreal quality in watching these familiar and lovely Ghibli faces moving through familiar and lovely Ghibli backgrounds, but looking thoroughly wrong in doing so. It can be something you learn to live with (as I did with Sidonia) but in my case it’s never something I can completely block out. And of course, the story in Ronja the Robber’s Daughter is totally unlike the cerebral and aloof hard sci-fi of Sidonia – this is a classic children’s book by the legendary Swedish author Astrid Lindgren. The material would have been right at-home in a big-screen Ghibli project, even in Miyazaki Hayao’s hands, and for two episodes at least it works well from a narrative standpoint. But two cours is a bit of a stretch for the source material to begin with, and that’s not even considering whether older viewers might be content to stay with the series for that long.
The director here is Miyazaki Goro, who proved in the vastly underrated From Up On Poppy Hill that he’s a formidable directorial talent in his own right. He keeps things moving along pretty briskly in the first double-episode, which focuses on the time of Ronja’s birth and in which the unquestioned star is her father Mattis (Seki Takaki). The leader of a gang of brigands who has his own family castle, Mattis is the latest (and hopefully not last) in a succession of great Ghibli dads. We get an introduction to the various members of Mattis’ gang as well as his wife Lovis (Nozawa Yukari). We also get a peek at a rival gang of robbers (they’ll be important later) and at the harpies of the magical woods, who make some of the creepiest screams you’ll hear anywhere. Ghibli is great with creepy screams.
Eventually Ronja is born, on a stormy night (that’s important for both practical and symbolic reasons) and she’ll eventually be played by Shiraishi Haruka. Mattis is a doting father and Ronja soon grows into a rambunctious and free-spirited girl who’s the apple of the entire gang’s eye. I do think something is lost in terms of authenticity by abandoning Ghibli’s usual practice of casting kids as kids (the other main child character, a boy, will also be played by an adult woman) but as with the animation I suppose that’s a concession to cost.
In sum, this plays like solid, mainstream Ghibli – except that the character animation is like the stuff of bad dreams. If you like material such as Uehashi Nahoko’s Kemono no Souja Erin I would imagine Ronja will be right up your alley, if you can learn to live with the CGI. Ghibli is still Ghibli and Miyazaki is a skilled director, and Lindgren’s original work is widely admired for a reason. It’s a fascinating thing, seeing Ghibli tackle a 26-episode TV anime, and it would be interesting to consider whether there might be more of them in the studio’s future – if it has a future. I just wish that in addition to creative stewardship we were seeing it animated by Ghibli too, but that probably isn’t realistic in today’s economic reality. Here’s hoping we see the hand-drawn genius of Ghibli return to our screens one day, be they big or small.