It's Studio Ghibli's first TV series, after only making movies. (Hayao Miyazaki has done TV before, but he isn't Ghibli and this isn't his show anyway. The director's his son, Goro.) Furthermore, it's also an adaptation of a book (Ronja Rovardotter) by Sweden's most popular children's author, Astrid Lingen, whose work has been translated into more than sixty languages. This particular book has already been turned into an award-winning 1984 live-action film (which was also the highest-grossing film of the year in Sweden) and German stage shows, including a musical.
Unfortunately its reputation isn't great, but I quite liked it. It's not top-drawer Ghibli, but I also don't think it's the disappointment I've seen it called.
It has a few sticking points, though, of which the biggest that it's a CGI anime. It's been cel-shaded (i.e. it looks hand-drawn), but it's CGI. If you don't believe me, look at everyone's hair. Shaggy mops will be as rigid as helmets. You could club a man to death with Lovis's pigtails. Obviously this is a problem, but the good news is that the animation is also a work of art, with no effort spared to make everyone's faces and bodies full of character. You might not guess it wasn't hand-drawn. It smells of Ghibli. Vigorous physical action and dramatic body language in particular is done excellently, with scenes like the robber dance party and the snow-bathing being exactly what they should be.
If you're looking for imperfections, you'll need to study closely. Slow, deliberate movements can perhaps look a little too perfect. That I don't care about. What I do think hurts the show though are the facial expressions, especially in the eyes. The CGI animators are working their socks off, but at the end of the day, the neutral default for a computer-generated character is dead-eyed. If you're not Pixar, it's hard not to let that seep in. Hand-drawn frames don't do that. Humans draw humans to look like humans.
Don't get me wrong, though. There's lots of expression and character in this anime. The cast look as if they're acting their socks off. However this is harder to do in understated moments and I don't think the acting always reaches the eyes. People will be slightly blank. The most damaging one is that I don't think Ronja comes alive as fully as she should have. She's okay and she improves later in the season, but look at what she could and should have been. Look at Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbour Totoro, or, to set the hurdle lower, pretty much any character in a hand-drawn show. Here, we're being kept at a distance. There's something hard to embrace about Ronja. Ep.3, for instance, somehow manages not to get under the character's skin (for me) despite being about nothing but Ronja exploring the forest for the first time. That should have been awesome! That should have been the biggest deal in her young life thus far, by miles. Nonetheless we're watching her from the outside, instead of seeing the world through her eyes. Theoretically the episode contains everything that's required, but the director and/or animators just aren't good enough to get us over the finishing line.
There are other places where I thought Ronja as a protagonist was being undersold. Ep.10 doesn't sell us on her despair, instead almost making it look like defeatism and/or stupidity. Similarly the attempted horse-taming in ep.14 isn't as cool as it should have been.
That said, though, the voice acting doesn't help. Goro's using lots of newbies and I'm not keen on Haruka Shiraishi as Ronja. In early episodes, she sometimes even sounds like an adult.
A partial corollary of this is that I don't think the cast are necessarily that likeable. The robbers are louts and swaggering idiots, plus of course they're robbers. Their wives are battleaxes. Ronja has a shell, while Bilk is softer but makes a poor first impression. I suspect this show would play better to children, who'd identify more directly with Ronja's situation.
The other elephant in the room is the fact that a 208-page children's book has become a 26-episode anime. You could do this story as a film. See the 1984 film for proof of that. Personally, though, I'm fine with that. I thought they made it work. The length isn't a problem and I'd only pick out one scene throughout the series that perhaps wanted for pace. (It's the argument in ep.19 about the missing knife. Spacing out the dialogue like that could perhaps be argued to be giving the fight more weight, but I find it hard to imagine any live-action director letting the actors leave so much dead air.)
All that said, this show also has much to admire. It's basically a good show. I enjoyed it. It's based on a classic book and it has two standout episodes in which the drama and/or emotion reach a peak.
It looks gorgeous. The real star of the show is the scenery.
The fantasy elements are perfect. There are lots of Swedish fantasy races in the forest: trolls, forest gnomes, harpies (technically "vildvittror"), etc. These are all fantastic. Most of them are teeny-weeny and super-cute in an ugly grumpy Ghibli way. It's almost worth watching just for them, with a particular highlight being the show's advice on how to deal with grey dwarves. All children should see that. Meanwhile the bird-women are genuinely creepy, with their insane bird-like staring and their utter screeching malice.
I love the ending theme, Player, sung by Mari Natsuki. The opening theme's nice as well, although I was less keen on the English version at the end of ep.26, but Mari Natsuki is magnificent.
I approximately approve of the story's attitude to robbery. On the downside, these are Lovable Robbers and their crimes are being made to look almost victimless. We hardly see any successful raids and I think on one of those occasions, two soldiers have been tied up. That's it. In contrast, there's one pair of twats riding through the forest who are so annoying that you actively want them to get robbed. (One's a minstrel and the other's a jester.) However it makes sense for the robbers to be Lovable Robbers, since Ronja isn't going on their raids and only sees them when they're back at the castle, living it up and playing with her. Ronja's the main character, so that's our viewpoint too. It's a big moment in the show when she learns that all their loot is stolen. Furthermore, old Skalle-Per takes delight in dwelling on the victims of their crimes, which eventually leads Ronja to take a stronger moral stance than her parents and everyone she's always lived with.
Robbery isn't victimless when Skalle-Per is winding up Mattis about it in Ronje's presence. On the contrary, Skalle-Per's underlining everything Mattis wants to hide.
I'm still not wild about the Lovable Robbers, though. Apart from anything else, it makes the show less dramatic. This would have been a far more vivid and powerful story, I think, had the robbers had a bit of menace instead of just being cuddly. Should we be feeling this comfortable about a child growing up among a criminal gang? Even when they're punching each other, the robbers just come across like boisterous schoolboys. Their confrontation in ep.6 is empty, with no weight to it. You'd let them babysit (although first you'd lock up the family silver).
It's amazing that Ronja's still alive, incidentally. Look at all her jumping and climbing around the forest, like a teeny Tarzan. Mind you, she does get herself in serious trouble about a third of the way through the series.
Random thought... what do the robbers do for female companionship? Only chiefs have wives, apparently. Mattis has Lovis, but what of his men? Do they run off to town to use prostitutes when Ronja isn't looking? Do they woo forest animals? Do they find manly consolation in each other's arms? (Probably the latter.)
The characterisation is deeper than it looks, reminding you that this is based on a novel. Bilk is quite a complicated boy, capable not just of bursts of jealousy but of being self-conscious about them. I love the Lovis-Ronja scene in ep.22, in which Lovis does a 180-degree turn and ends up being as implacable as she'd previously been compassionate. The big falling-out in the second half is pretty damn intense. I also liked the last episode a lot, which it seems to me ends the story with all the right decisions. It's not a climax, but instead what happens after the climax.
I'm tempted to watch the 1984 film, incidentally, because I found the following online. "Borje Ahlstedt as Mattis in the movie is one of the largest and most legendary hams in Swedish cinematic history." Now that's Mattis. (He's both a swaggering macho thug and a drama queen.) Everyone who's seen that film seems to think it's fantastic, as far as I can tell.
Oh, and you'll probably see different versions of the names. Even Ronja might appear as Ronja (the original Swedish), Ronya (how it's pronounced), Rounya (a transliteration of the Japanese pronunciation), Kirsty (the looser of the two English translations of the novel) and more. Ghibli stick to the Swedish pronunciations, not even translating nicknames like Skalle-Per (with "skalle" meaning "skinny").
Overall, I think it's a good series, but with subtle production failures that stop it from being a great one. The CGI is beautifully done, but (a) it's still CGI, and (b) it would be lazy and wrong to pretend that that's the beginning and end of the show's problems. I'm not convinced that all the laughing works, for instance. Above all, this show's Ronya (CGI animation and Haruka Shiraishi's voice acting) is an imperfectly realised creation, which is a huge problem in a title character and doubly so when all the adults around her are idiots, criminals or harridans. (Lovis can admittedly be a fairly sympathetic harridan, when the mood takes her, but she's still hardly cuddly.) Ronja's grim determination as she stomps off with the men to confront Borka in ep.6, for instance, should have been awesome. She's tiny! That should have been adorable, but it's not. Instead it's merely "good enough".
Had this show been a triumph, it might have been the saving of Ghibli. I don't blame Goro, though. It's not his fault he's not as good as his dad. Hayao (and Isao Takahata) failed to nurture the next generation to come after them and keep the company going.
However it's still a strong show. I'd be interested to see what children think, since I imagine their reactions would be very different to mine. Would they be bored or riveted? I honestly don't know. I've been reviewing this from my own personal point of view, obviously, not being qualified to do anything else. It's worth a look if only for the Rumphob dwarves.