Review: Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter (2014)

Studio Ghibli's first foray into serialised television is a sweet tale of star-crossed childhood friendship held back by slow pacing and sluggish CGI

Studio Ghibli’s first ever television series, Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, dropped on Amazon Prime in January of this year. The studio is known worldwide for its beautifully animated stories of friendship, family and regard for the natural world, but pacing issues and mishandled digital rendering mean that Ronja fails to live up to the high expectations that come with the Ghibli name.

Directed by Gorō Miyazaki, the son of Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki, the 26-episode series is based on a book of the same name by Pippi Longstocking creator Astrid Lindgren. Ronja (Teresa Gallagher) is the daughter of Lovis (Morwenna Banks) and Mattis (Rufus Hound), chief of a robber clan occupying a fort deep in the Scandinavian forest. Venturing alone into the forest, Ronja meets Birk (Kelly Adams), son of a rival clan chief. As the two learn to navigate their dangerous forest home, they slowly develop a friendship that eventually blossoms into love, much to the chagrin of their warring fathers.

So far, so classic Ghibli. A young female protagonist exploring her world and finding a sense of identity, a setting steeped in the beauty and wonder of the natural world, and a heavy emphasis on family and friendship; the themes and characters of Lindgren’s tale seem tailor-made for adaptation by Ghibli. Why then, does Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter fall resoundingly flat in the studio’s hands?

One thing that immediately stands out is that the show is computer animated, featuring a mix of digitally rendered 2D and 3D elements. If you rock up to Ronja expecting more of Ghibli’s whimsically iconic hand-drawn visuals, you’re in for a bit of a surprise, and very likely an unpleasant one. Of course, hand-drawing all 26 episodes would have taken forever, so it’s a sensible decision on that point, but a large chunk of Ghibli’s usual magic is unmistakably lost.

While beautifully rendered landscapes are still the order of the day, and any chase or fight scenes are given an extra edge, this is at the cost of the characters. Their three-dimensional expressions seem, ironically, flat, and their reactions slow, with an almost video game feel to them. There are still small moments where the soul of Ghibli shines through – mother Lovis holding baby Ronja as the sunlight slowly moves across her face, for example – but these are few and far between.

Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki has used CGI elements in his films before, and his partner Isao Takahata’s film My Neighbors the Yamadas (1999) was completely digitally animated, but the film was rendered in a very effective ‘sketch-book’ style, which echoed Japanese art (and it still didn’t do nearly as well at the western box office as more classic-looking Ghibli films).

But it isn’t only the presence of CGI which renders Ronja a difficult watch. The pacing of the story is practically glacial, with very little forward movement taking place in each episode. It takes hours for the central plot, Ronja’s rocky relationship with best frenemy Birk, to solidify, and it’s difficult to imagine any child’s attention being caught and held by this series until the end.

Ronja would have benefited from some rather brutal editing, or perhaps fared better as a feature film, the format that has stood Studio Ghibli in good stead for decades. As it is, this sweet but stilted tale of star-crossed childhood friendship feels more like a badly handled Ghibli homage than an offering from Ghibli itself.

Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter will be available on DVD and Blu-ray from December 4th 2017, and the whole series is still available to view on Amazon Prime.

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