I can think of no better way to start off 2018 than with a movie review of Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a first from the newly formed Studio Ponoc. Brought together with former animators and staff from the renowned Studio Ghibli, Studio Ponoc ventures into a realm of fantasy straight from the British Isles. Mary and the Witch’s Flower takes inspiration from a 1971 novel by Mary Stewart called The Little Broomstick. In it, Mary Smith explores her new home and stumbles across a very special flower.
When the announcement for this film was made, I knew without a doubt that I would watch it in theaters if at all possible. Luckily, GKIDS made Mary and the Witch’s Flower available in several cities with both Japanese and English audio options. We opted for Japanese audio and English subtitles, which may or may not have contributed to the older audience. There were almost no children in attendance and, other than some cheering at the start of the opening credits, everyone was respectful for the screening. Seeing the lush art and animation in the theater and hearing the soundtrack around us made the experience even more breathtaking.
Much of the hype surrounding this film stems from the Studio Ghibli influence, which not only oozes from almost every aspect of this work, but is also repeatedly advertised to the audience. The director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, cites When Marnie Was There and The Secret World of Arrietty as his debut directorial films, as well as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponyo for animation. There’s no escaping the relationship, which both aids and hinders this film from standing on its own feet. With both Studio Ghibli and Stewart’s novel making up the support system, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is only the first of what I hope will be a successful line of works from Studio Ponoc.
But on to the story, shall we? (spoilers ahead)
As I have not read Mary Stewart’s book, I cannot make comparisons between the two works. I did, however, feel a distinct familiarity with another well known children’s series: Harry Potter. This is no coincidence, as Stewart predates Rowling and likely served as an influence on the author. While the visuals are all Ghibli, the story is full Stewart.
Mary Smith moves to the countryside ahead of her parents and stays in her aunt’s household. While there, she struggles to fit in and entertain herself. With only her aunt, the housekeeper, and the gardener as company, she quickly gets underfoot in her attempts to help and is sent out of the house to entertain herself. It’s then that she meets Peter, a boy from the nearby town, and his two cats, Tib and Gib.
One day, she follows the cats into the woods and stumbles across a mysterious blue flower. Mary can’t stop herself from picking the strange and beautiful flower and taking it home with her. She learns that this flower, a “fly-by-night,” blooms only once every seven years and is supposedly highly coveted by witches. What follows is another chance encounter, this time with a magical broom. Thanks to the flower and broom, Mary is whisked away to a land far above the clouds and on to Endor College, a school for witches. What seems like a dream come true turns out to be something else entirely.
Story and Characters
The writing in Mary and the Witch’s Flower is quick and tight, with scenes moving from one to the next with little dawdling. While this helps a good deal in momentum, it also detracts from the school setting. We’re rushed through classrooms and facilities overflowing with intricate details. Everything from the characters, the architecture, and to the use of magic surrounds and overwhelms you, but we fly by too quickly to fully appreciate them all. I expected Mary to spend at least a few days within the college walls interacting with the students and getting a feel for the layout of the buildings, but instead we go back and forth between the college and her home. In a way, I felt like a commuter shuttling between the two sites. This is one area where I wish the writers had revised the story.
Then there are the villains of the story, witches who were once passionate, caring teachers. Blinded by ambition, they let it reshape their focus in life. While I appreciated the background information provided on them, which rounded out their characters, I also couldn’t forgive them for some of the atrocities they displayed earlier in the film. We see animal experimentation and a willingness to do the same on humans. The comeuppance in the end is portrayed almost comically, with our villains fumbling about without their magic. I can’t shake the feeling that the same transformation of character will occur if they ever stumble across another fly-by-night.
Another spot for improvement was the manner in which Mary overcame any roadblocks. She’s thrown into one trial after another, always maintaining her spirit and optimism. Instead of getting out of situations on her own, however, she is always saved by her broomstick. In an interview following the film, the director imparts his desire that children learn from this movie to always put a foot forward, because that’s the first step to a solution. It’s hard to take that lesson to heart when it wasn’t Mary, but her broomstick, who did the heavy lifting. Regardless, I appreciate the sentiment, and doubt kids will see it from that point of view. I hope they will take to heart Mary’s determination in the face of opposition, her optimism even when magic is out of reach.
One of my favorite aspects about Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the comedy, which comes out in both dialogue and body language. The character interactions are written impeccably, with witty back and forth quips between both Mary and other people, as well as with creatures like Tib and the broomstick. There’s a wonderful follow through on one particular joke where, at the beginning of the movie, Peter teases Mary about her hair and likens her to a red monkey. Later on, they actually encounter a monkey of that description and Peter nearly mistakes it for Mary. The look on her face at his surprise is priceless. Then they use that same monkey to trick their pursuers. Silly moments like these pepper the film and bring it to life just as much as the artwork.
Tib, the black cat with emerald eyes, is another wonderful addition to the story. Black cats in general are synonymous with witches, but his involvement is less cat familiar and more an agent of action. It’s he who first catches Mary’s attention and lures her into the woods. It’s Tib who convinces her to search for the missing Gib. His expressive face adds much to the tone of the story and his character.
We cannot talk about the film without acknowledging the art and animation, which are top notch. The background art, architecture and character design are all Ghibli—vibrant and complex. Both my husband and I recalled the same scene where the camera focused on nearby grass, then shifted to the background. We were almost tricked into believing the plants were real; that’s how detailed they were. Every moment from minute flora to panoramic views of the English countryside and Endor College overflow with details.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a delightful film that will bring you back to your childhood and fly you away to a place of magic. The enthusiasm of its creators jumps out at you from every scene. As a first for the studio, the film promises a future of dedication to quality. I hope they will learn from their weaknesses and improve in the years ahead. Mary and the Witch’s Flower deserves your time and attention; you may walk away from it like I did with a pep to your step and the determination to do what previously seemed impossible.
Rating: 2 dango
- 0 dango – average and forgettable.
- 1 dango – very good in its category.
- 2 dango – excellent show that is worth a try.
- 3 dango – exceptional show one must watch.