My review of Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter could begin and end with the statement that I couldn’t get through all 13 screener episodes of the show that Amazon Studios sent over to us, even after multiple attempts. The anime series from Studio Ghibli and Saltkråkan (the Astrid Lindgren company) looks extremely impressive in its pedigree and its stills, but it never recovers from an unforgivably slow start.
Ronja (rhymes with “Sonja”) is a 10-year-old girl living an idyllic life as the daughter of the bandit lord Mattis and his infinitely more level-headed wife Lovis. Their home is an immense stone fortress embedded deep in a forest populated with mystical creatures as well as the usual animal denizens. Her life takes an unexpected turn when she meets Birk, the young son of Mattis’ chief rival Borka, as the two form an unlikely friendship in the face of their bandit clans’ comic conflicts and the strange goings-on in the forest.
Unfortuantely, Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter drags so much as to be unwatchable. Scenes start too soon and run for way, way too long, forcing us to watch people walking across rooms or forests, or staring at something for much longer than it takes for us to register their emotional state about it. There may be a lot of things happening, but the earliest episodes seem to use them strictly as backdrop rather than as building blocks to construct something larger. The first episode is entirely dedicated to Ronja’s birth, but the strange omens throughout the episode don’t seem to be playing into any kind of larger story arc. Like many of Studio Ghibli’s heroines, Ronja is a strong-willed, independent girl, but the mysterious storm and flying harpies around her birth don’t seem to have been necessary to make her that way. Ronja’s first solo trip to the forest leads to an encounter with some weird magical beasts, but the pacing of the encounter is so pedestrian that we don’t get any sense of threat or menace to her, and by the end of it we haven’t learned anything that couldn’t be gleaned from the dialogue beforehand. In fact, the threat we were told about seems rather overblown for all the impact of the actual encounter. Even the action scenes don’t generate excitement comparable to the activity on-screen, and they end up dragging too long, too. Ronja and Birk’s first encounter involves a jumping contest over a dangerous gap in Mattis’ fortress. It might be exciting to see the two leaping over the chasm three or four times, but it becomes extremely boring after the 10th or 11th leap that’s the same as all the ones before it, no matter how many times the camera angle changes.
In short, the earliest episodes of Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter are deeply, profoundly boring. After the first few times that a seemingly important incident was badly staged before being carelessly dropped, I found it harder and harder to pay attention. Some scenes dragged for so long that I found myself checking e-mail or social media feeds or my Star Wars: Commander game status instead of paying attention to the TV. By the third or fourth time I had done this, I had to force myself to watch, leading me to believe that the series takes it for granted that what’s happening on screen is interesting and worth our time. Ronja’s first strolls through the forest serve to show how strange and interesting the forest is by making us watch Ronja reacting to how strange and interesting the forest is. The setting is certainly beautiful and strange and interesting, but a better series would let us see that on our own and certainly wouldn’t take the bulk of three episodes to bring that point across.
To be fair, the series seems to get much more interesting once Ronja meets Birk (at the very end of episode 4, despite the title promising that it will come much sooner). The rivalry that develops between them creates some interesting friction that promises to kickstart the plot, and episode 7 (“A Song in the Mist”) is exactly the kind of thing I was hoping for from this series, with an interesting plot development that presents a real challenge and starts playing to some of the elements that have been built up by that point. Unfortunately, it’s too little too late, and even this episode suffers from the same scene-level pacing problems, nearly undermining the conflict Ronja and Birk have to deal with. It also took about a week of attempts to even get that far.
The most interesting thing about Ronja is its animation style, which seems to be the next generation of the cel-shaded CGI that I associate most successfully with the anime series Freedom. Unfortunately, that association also makes me remember how interesting and exciting that series was, even with its own quirky pacing.
The contradiction of the modern media landscape is that streaming series can play with much longer story arcs and pacing, but risk of losing viewers early on if they don’t find something quickly to hold their interest. Whether you’re watching a series a week at a time or binge-watching an entire season, you really have to swing for the fences in that first at-bat or people will just abandon the series for one of the myriad others that look more interesting. In this analogy, Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter keeps striking out while promising a killer sixth inning. It might have one, but it’s a real struggle to sit through such a long, boring game.