Khoi Vinh’s review published on Letterboxd:
Most Ghibli films quickly get stuck in “Look at how fantastical this stuff we animated is!” mode, which is almost always correlated with a conspicuous loss of interest on the filmmakers’ part in character development, and that’s when they lose me. “Whisper of the Heart” is refreshingly, almost alarmingly antithetical to that kind of movie; it’s almost the anti-“Spirited Away.” The plot is focused almost entirely on the inner growth of the characters rather than on the exhibitionist imaginations of the animators, and the results are lovely and much more resonant.
The protagonist, a girl in her early teens adrift at the cusp of high school, is alive and breathing and feeling with so much more clarity and genuineness and honesty than I can remember from any other of the studio’s projects. It’s all set against a backdrop of quotidian Tokyo life that’s rendered—both in the intricate background paintings as well as the observant character movements —with so much artistic care and subtlety that this world is actually more wondrous and captivating than any ostentatiously weird dreamscape could be.
When the inevitable fantastical images do appear (the studio seems unable to resist them), the moments are much smaller scale and reserved than the usual: a cat who knows how to take public transport, rather than a cat who is public transport, for instance. The effect is so much more delightful than the usual showy spectacles that Ghibli frequently substitutes for substance. These quieter instances aren’t just textbook examples of “less is more,” they’re also vivid embellishments to—rather than obfuscations of—the inner lives and external experiences of the human protagonist. They do the job of bringing her to life without smothering the frame with visual extravagance.