If you’ve ever seen one of Studio Ghibli’s fantastical animé films such as Spirited Away, Laputa – Castle in the Sky, Porco Rosso or Howl’s Moving Castle, then this television show which was originally made in 2014 will look and feel very familiar to you – but with the slightest of twists.
Based on the children’s fantasy book by noted Swedish author Astrid Lindgren (creator of Pippi Longstocking), Ronja, The Robbers Daughter is the charming story of Ronja, the ten-year-old daughter of bandit chief Mattis and his wife Lovis. The early episodes spend time with Ronja as she explores the forest around the castle fortress that she calls home, but it isn’t long before a rival clan moves in literally next door and a feud builds up which is further complicated when Ronja develops feelings for the rival chief’s son Birk.
If you know Studio Ghibli’s movies then you’ll be aware that they’re hardly overburdened by detailed plot and narrative. Here, much the same quantity of material is spread over 26 half-hour episodes rather than 90 minutes and as a result it’s stretched gossamer-thin to the point that you’re hardly aware there’s any story behind what you’re watching at all. Instead, we’re invited to join in with Ronja’s experience as she investigates the world around her and starts to understand the realities of life in the forest and as part of a robber clan. The show isn’t averse to spending ten minutes watching Mattis build himself up into a raging temper, or showing Ronja spending hours clearing rubble after a rockfall blocks off an important tunnel. And the thing is, you won’t begrudge the time spent watching this gentle tale unfold, since every frame beguilingly reveals a little more about each of the characters and locations being depicted.
Make no mistake, this is very much a show for children – and very young ones at that. There’s no ‘edge’ or extra level for adults – you either watch and accept this as a child (whatever your age) or you don’t. There are times where even a ‘U’ certificate feels a bit heavy-handed for what we’re watching. But like the best fairy tales there are also moments when there’s a sudden chill, such as an eerie sequence in which Ronja is lost in the mist and taunted by wraith-like children; and another where Ronja is stuck in a snow drift and attacked by the half-bird, half-female ‘harpies’ in a sequence which is styled after the Japanese horror classic Ringu.
Directed by Goro Miyazaki (Tales from Earthsea, From Up on Poppy Hill), the graphic style of Ronja, The Robbers Daughter looks very close to that employed by his father Hayao but on closer inspection is augmented by subtle CGI effects that give a pleasingly three dimensional, smooth feel to things without upsetting the old-fashioned simplicity of the classic Ghibli styling. It’s just enough to make you think you’re watching something from the 21st century, without alienating fans of Ghibli’s greatest hand-drawn epics such as Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Ponyo.
Alas, Studio Ghibli has effectively closed its doors in the time since Ronja, The Robbers Daughter was originally made for NHK BS Premium three years ago. The series went on to win the Kid’s International Emmy in 2016 despite not being a great ratings hit in its native land. Now it comes to western audiences in 2017 courtesy of this English language version that has been developed for exclusive streaming on Amazon Prime, and curiously the studio has decided to give this a firmly British sensibility with voices provided by the likes of Rufus Hound and Adrian Edmondson, while the waffly Rumphobs are performed (rather admirably) by animé fan Jonathan Ross. Ronja herself is given voice by Teresa Gallagher, while the series is narrated by Gillian Anderson using her London accent rather than the generic American one she employs for the likes of The X-Files.
If I’m honest, I’m more than 40 years too old for Ronja, The Robbers Daughter, but it didn’t matter a jot – I still found it absolutely entrancing and delightful. Even the title music – which has the simplicity and earnestness of something Joss Whedon would have been delighted to put into the all-singing Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode a decade ago – becomes addictive and unskippable. I’ll admit, I’ve spend many a day with it rattling around playing in a loop in my brain since starting to stream the show.
In a world with more than its fair share of troubles at the moment, Ronja, The Robbers Daughter is a genuine treat and it’s a privilege to be able to spend half an hour at a time in such an enchanting world. I recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone who still has even the slightest sliver of the magic of childhood remaining within themselves, whether they’re aged three or 103.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
The English language version of Ronja is available to stream on Amazon Prime