Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter marks Studio Ghibli’s first foray into television, and despite some of the iconic animation studio’s charm poking through, it feels like it’s missing something.
I’ve seen the first four episodes of Ghibli’s new show, which was made in partnership with animation studio Polygon (no relation) and is now available to stream on Amazon. The show emphasizes themes that make Ghibli movies spectacular: a young girl trying to find her way in the world, a sense of self-identity, the importance of family and folklore. But despite all of the ingredients to make the perfect show, Ronja falls flat.
The key to any Ghibli film succeeding is the ability to not just believe in the characters, but empathize with them. Although Ronja and Mattis are interesting, clever people, they don’t have the same presence as Chihiro in Spirited Away or as San from Princess Mononoke. It feels like Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter is trying to pay homage to former director Hayao Miyazaki’s legacy instead of figuring out its own way.
To put it simply, Ronja feels empty, void of any authentic, genuine heart.
Ronja tells the story of a young girl who’s born into a family of thieves. While out in the forest that lies just beyond their village walls, Ronja meets Birk, the son of her father’s rival gang of robbers. Birk and Ronja develop a friendship, but that becomes tested when family allegiances come into play. Although Birk and Ronja want to continue to see each other, they’re aware of the icy relationship their fathers have with one another, and it’s through that Romeo and Juliet-type struggle that Ronja finds its drama.
The theme of family and loyalty is at the heart of every episode. In the pilot, Mattis is in the middle of an ambush on a wealthy traveller when he gets the news that his wife could be in labor. He rushes home, literally tripping over himself as he races up the stairs, and spends the next little while impatiently waiting for his child to be born. The minute she is, Ronja captures his heart, and the following episode focuses on the bond built between Mattis and his daughter.
It’s important that Studio Ghibli leads with the emphatic importance of this father-daughter relationship, as it’s what eventually leads to issues between the two. Ronja is a strong-willed woman like her mother, and Mattis is someone who’s not used to being argued with. He’s a commander-in-chief, and that sometimes plays into his parenting style. Ronja’s stubborn attitude, however, results in her father’s growing humility and learning that he can’t control everything, especially his own child.
It’s an interesting relationship dynamic to see played out, but that’s what makes the otherwise lackluster nature of the series even more disappointing. This family theme is one that Ghibli fans will be familiar with if they’ve seen films like From Up on Poppy Hill. Before he retired, Hayao Miyazaki was a master of writing complex family dynamics, and it feels like his son Goro, who directed Ronja (and Poppy Hill), is trying to copy the same technique, but to limited avail.
This is the issue Ronja deals with throughout the four episodes I watched. Everything about it screams emulation of Ghibli’s past. While those small moments of classic Studio Ghibli may appease some, the rest of it is just meh. It doesn’t leave you excited to watch the next episode, nor does the series leave you feeling fulfilled once it’s over.
Two of the only redeeming qualities the show has, which I genuinely adored, are the animation style and the dedication to folklore. The connection Ronja and her family have to the spirits and creatures of the woods plays an important role in the series, just as it often does in Studio Ghibli’s films. On that front, Goro Miyazaki succeeds at capturing an element that makes Ghibli movies feel so fantastical to begin with. The director masterfully weaves in supernatural elements without ever forcing the additional storytelling element.
The animation style may be a little more controversial for long-time Ghibli fans. It mixes 3D and 2D elements, which definitely took a little bit of time to get used to, but I found the style to be ultimately refreshing. The action sequences benefit the most from it, as can be seen whenever Mattis goes on an ambush with his band of robbers or Ronja is running through the forest. It doesn’t feel as sacrilegious as some might think to see a new animation style in a Ghibli production, and it’s something I hope the studio continues to explore.
I went into Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter wanting it to be my next favorite show. I’ve spoken at length about how much I adore Ghibli and how important the studio’s work is to me personally, but of the four episodes I watched, I didn’t feel particularly moved by anything I saw. It was enjoyable at times, but it also suffered from periods of boringness that’s hard to overcome once it settles. Hopefully, that changes as the series continues. We could use a good new Studio Ghibli project right about now.
Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter is available to stream in its entirety through Amazon Prime right now.