Prime Viewing: Ronja, The Robber's Daughter

Much in the vein of our Netflix Hidden Gem series, this week I’m branching out to include Amazon Prime. Why you may ask? Simple. I want to talk about Studio Ghibli! Ronja, The Robber's Daughter (Netflix Original, Studio Ghibli)

Based on Astrid Lindgren’s novel, this series tells the coming of age of Ronja, the only daughter of a robber chief growing up in medieval Scandinavia. When Ronja becomes old enough to explore the forest on her own, she discovers that a rival robber clan and their young son are living quite close by. The two strike up a friendship, regardless of their parents’ wishes.

Photo: Amazon, Studio Ghibli

I was very excited when I heard that Ghibli was going to be releasing this series on Amazon and I started watching it not long after it was available. But here it is almost 2 months later and I’m only just getting around to talking about it. This is because it took me a long time to both finish watching it and even longer to decide how I felt about it. So, for the sake of this review, I’m going to simplify things. For better or worse, here's what I thought. Spoiler alert: it's kinda a mixed bag.

The Stiff Animation

Ronja’s animation style is a combination of 3D computer animated characters on top of hand-drawn 2D background art. While some of the results are interesting in terms of the shading and how the 3D characters allow for more depth, there is a distinct loss when it comes to their movement. I find it hard to describe, but things don’t feel as fluid.  They also don’t feel as warm and rich, especially against such gorgeous backgrounds.

Feel free to take a look and decide for yourself:

I will admit that there's still a remarkable amount of eye candy here and for an animated series consisting of 26 episodes, Ghibli has managed to set the bar quite high. But at the end of the day, any animation style that requires an adjustment period is problematic, especially when the idea is to draw you into the lush and fantastic world that Ronja takes place in.

Sluggish Story Pacing

When I think of my favorite Ghibli films, I think about stories - stories that reveal themselves slowly as if you’re carefully unraveling a ball of yarn bit by bit. In this fashion of storytelling, important development isn’t rushed and we are shown just as much as we are told. Because of this, I wasn’t expecting Ronja to be terribly fast paced, but I was pretty surprised when I found myself skipping through large sections of the early episodes in an attempt to move the story along. There are some charming gags thrown in here and there, but they often seem to go on too long and they stop being funny.

The first half of the story spends a great deal of time creating Ronja's world. This isn't a bad thing at all as Ronja's adventures in the forest often teach her important lessons about bravery and responsibility. She learns to heed her father's warnings about the darker creatures that live in the forest and we are given hints about the robber's fading way of life. The problem is that there isn't a lot of pay out for all these hints and set up. At least not at first. The breadcrumbs feel so few and far between and this can prove challenging in a show that is meant to appeal to children. I know a lot of kids who probably wouldn't do a great job sitting through this one.

Full of Heart and Unique

I want to end this review on an upswing. This is because I don’t want any hardcore Lindgren or Ghibli fans worrying that something they love is now a mess. For as much as I wrote about what I didn’t like, there is still a lot to like. There are a lot of elements that are very strong, for instance the voice acting in the English dub. The voices are expressive and match the over the top animated expressions of the characters quite well. Ronja and Birk particularly do a great job at walking that line between cute and annoying. They manage to express their excitement at the world around them without causing copious eye-rolling. Believe me, this is a quite a skill, especially when I would argue that even major companies (Disney - I'm looking at you) doesn't always get it right.

Ronja is also extremely unique. I can't think of many series like this that have been made in recent years. The sense of wonder and the ability of the characters to stop and be amazed by their (by our standards) simple world feels warm and unique. Plain bread is delicious and comforting, and each season brings its own gifts.  Even the relationships and sense of family among each band of robbers is a nice thing to watch. Heck, I'm a sucker for stories where love and friendship win out in the end, so for me it's always nice to see adults swayed by the innocence and logic of those so much younger than themselves.

Final Verdict:

3 out of 5 soothing cups of chamomile tea

Not Ghibli's strongest effort, but one that grows on you and shows you a few things you might not have seen recently. You aren't going to be glued to your seat, but its something nice to have on until you find yourself off on an adventure of your own.