Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Ronja the Robber's Daughter
Complete Series Streaming
On a stormy night in Medieval Sweden, Ronja is born to Mattis, the chief of the Mattis Robbers. Adored by her parents Mattis and Lovis, Ronja lives her first ten years in the warmth of her family's castle before being allowed to venture out into the forest. But Mattis' band isn't the only group of thieves in the woods, and the rival Borka Robbers soon move in next door, in the part of the castle that was separated by a lightning strike the hour of Ronja's birth. Borka and his wife Undis also have a child of ten, Birk, and despite the odds, Ronja and Birk become fast friends. Can their friendship survive their parents' hatred-fueled rivalry?
Studio Ghibli's first television series is based on Swedish children's author Astrid Lindgren's 1981 novel of the same name, Ronja the Robber's Daughter, and it doesn't want you to forget it. The dub script is taken almost word-for-word from Patricia Crompton's 1983 translation of the text, to the point where you can almost read along with Gillian Anderson's narration. It's an interesting choice, and it certainly speaks to the fidelity with which this adaptation is made – not a single thing from Lindgren's 176-page book is left out.
While this is certainly impressive, and relatively unusual as far as anime adaptations go, with Studio Ghibli's own work bringing Mary Norton's The Borrowers and Joan G. Robinson's When Marnie was There to the big screen being no exception, it does have a marked effect on the pacing of what is clearly supposed to be a children's show. Because of the need to draw things out and to fill in with action what Lindgren previously narrated, the story moves very slowly, particularly in the opening episodes before Ronja and Birk meet (or before Ronja grows up enough to have adventures), which risks losing its intended audience. It's definitely a little strange, because as with most of Lindgren's work (you may know her as the creator of Pippi Longstocking) the novel moves very quickly, and the drawn-out pace of the show makes it a little bit less of an adventure. (By way of an example, a scene with a lost knife takes one paragraph in the novel; in the show it gets an entire episode.) This is a gorgeous, interesting series, but by about the half-way mark, I couldn't help wishing that they'd been a little less faithful and gone for a thirteen-episode show or a two-hour film.
Despite this issue, Ronja's story is delightful. The forests of Medieval Sweden are painted with exquisite care and populated with a childlike sense of the supernatural, filled with terrifying harpies, owlish grey dwarves, and other mysterious shadowfolk, but also with moose, wild horses, and foxes. Ronja herself feels like a real child – she lives in her own world, taking huge risks with barely a thought and fully embracing her life. She's a very typical Lindgren heroine, seeing the world in her own way and taking no garbage from anyone, while also infecting others with her sense of adventure and joy. By contrast, Birk is a much more grounded character, taking a more practical approach to their budding friendship and adventures, and while the children do save each other's lives in a fairly back-and-forth pattern, when Birk saves Ronja, it is more typically from herself, while Ronja saving Birk is generally a physical thing. They balance each other out well, and their relationship fits the pattern of the other couples in the story – both sets of parents have a “practical” one (Lovis and Borka) and a more emotional, immature one (Mattis and Undis). While Ronja is more on the emotional side, she has also inherited good sense and determination from her mother Lovis – she just doesn't always listen to that part of her.
Despite being a children's show, most of the characters in the story are adults, at least nominally. Lovis and Noddle Pete, the oldest of the Mattis Robbers, form the solid backbone for the tale, with Lovis particularly exhibiting a lot of strength, and not just in the scene where she walks down from a tall tower minutes after giving birth. Most of Mattis' robbers are portrayed more like teenagers, even though they're clearly full grown, and while their antics are amusing, scenes in the castle's great hall featuring all of them, as well as episodes twenty-four and twenty-five's fight for dominance, can feel extraneous to Ronja's story. It's also very hard to catch all of their names; after twenty-six episodes, I could only be sure of Noddle Pete, Little Klippen, and Pelje – three out of twelve.
Amazon Prime's release of the series is only available with the British dub, which may disappoint some viewers. The dub is, however, very good, with particularly good performances by Adrian Edmondson as Noddle Pete and Rufus Hound as Mattis, and Kelly Adams (who some viewers may know from Mr. Selfridge) does a very credible little boy in her role as Birk. What may throw viewers off more, however, is the fact that this is animated in 3D computer graphics rather than traditional animation. I will admit to disappointment when I first realized that, but this is some of the absolute best CG I've seen, with near-perfect rigging for smooth movement. The only real issues are in the faces – shading isn't quite right, making chins disappear (less of an issue in bearded characters) and ears don't quite attach correctly. Hair is also remarkably stiff, which is an issue when Ronja and Birk are running or in the water. The non-human characters fare better with the animation, particularly the harpies and the rumphobs. The harpies are truly the stuff of nightmares, not just with their terrifying cry that sounds somewhere between an evil woman's cackle and the scream of an enraged osprey, but also in their designs: unlike more traditional harpies, these are huge bird bodies with human heads. The faces have two basic expressions: evilly gleeful and murderously happy. The rumphobs, on the other hand, are adorable, not to mention marketable, with their black-rimmed eyes, bulbous noses, and, of course, large posteriors. As a side note, they are speaking English – you just have to really concentrate on the way they swallow their words, an affectation from the text rather than an actual accent.
Ronja the Robber's Daughter isn't really the sort of show that you binge, but rather the kind that is best consumed in small pieces, allowing you to slip into the story's world but leave again before it overwhelms you. It is beautiful in many ways, from the backgrounds to Ronja's and Birk's friendship to the magic of the world itself. It is also perhaps too faithful an adaptation of its source material, slowing its pacing down to the point where its target audience of children may find it a little boring in places. But that doesn't stop this from being worth checking out, especially if Pippi was one of your childhood heroes. Ronja's tough, sweet, and a terrific heroine more than worthy of her pedigree, and her story is worth it.
Overall (dub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A-
+ Gorgeous backgrounds and rich detail in both story and art, CG rigging is excellent, and the story is faithfully adapted
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