Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Mary & Witch's Flower - English

For three decades now, Studio Ghibli has been at the forefront of the Japanese animation industry, with the majority of its releases being critical and commercial successes. But with the studio’s dissolution imminent, many are wondering who will continue its legacy, or if it’s even possible to do so. If this film here is any indication, then Studio Ponoc might have a chance of carrying that mantle.

A young red-haired girl named Mary Smith has recently moved to the countryside, ready to start a new life with her parents. Whilst she waits for her mother and father to arrive, Mary tries to keep herself occupied by helping her Great Aunt Charlotte with odd-jobs around the home, which isn’t easy – Mary’s clumsiness renders her incapable of performing even the most basic task. Once she has (accidentally) botched every chore, all that’s left for Mary to do is journey into the surrounding forest.

While walking through this forest, Mary comes across two mysterious objects located within yards of each other: a blue flower known as a “Fly-by-Night”, which is said to appear only once every seven years, and a child-sized broom with ancient text carved into the handle. After accidentally crushing her flower against the broomstick, Mary becomes blessed with the most extraordinary powers, and is promptly whisked away to a large fortress nestled in the clouds above her village.

That fortress turns out to be Endor College, a school of wizardry and witchcraft run by Madame Mumblechook. While Mary is mesmerised by everything that the college offers, she cannot help but feel that something sinister is afoot, and so flies away the moment the opportunity arises. But Madame Mumblechook has some suspicions of her own, being only too keen to lure the mysterious Mary back to Endor – and she believes that she has a means of doing so.

First released in Japan last June, Mary and the Witch’s Flower has already made history as the very first feature to come from Studio Ponoc. The recently-formed studio was founded by Yoshiaki Nishimura, an alum of Studio Ghibli hoping to make his mark in the world of animation. Upon starting Studio Ponoc, Nishimura set about recruiting many of the animators who had worked on previous Ghibli projects, including the director of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, Hiromasa Yonebashi.

It would seem that Yonebashi has an affinity for British tales, since Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the third English novel to be adapted by the director – Arrietty was inspired by Mary Norton’s “The Borrowers”, whilst When Marnie Was There was based on Joan G. Robinson’s book of the same name. For Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Yonebashi has taken inspiration from “The Little Broomstick”, a children’s novel written by Mary Stewart and first released in 1971.

Although its art-style suggests otherwise, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is quite westernised for a Japanese feature. There’s plenty of understated humour to be found – a quintessential feature of British films – as well as hints of other stories that feature magic in a contemporary setting, such as Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Harry Potter. The film also borrows heavily from Hayao Miyazaki’s filmography, with elements of Spirited Away, Castle in the Sky and Kiki’s Delivery Service present.

While the story has been infused with the charms of Studio Ghibli, unfortunately it doesn’t have much else going for it, seeming somewhat underdeveloped. For instance, a moustachioed racoon named Mr. Flanagan is introduced when Mary is flown to Endor, yet isn’t provided with any backstory nor complexity. And then there’s Endor College itself, which is laced with plenty of imaginative ideas that aren’t further explored by the protagonists.

Thankfully, there are less qualms to be had with the animation. While the film may not match the perfection of Ghibli’s works, it comes ever so close, with its levels of detail and beauty being well-above standard. It’s the kind of animation that’s gratifying to witness – with Hollywood fixated on 3D animation, and Studio Ghibli preparing to fold, hand-drawn films like Mary and the Witch’s Flower are set to become an even rarer occurrence in the years to come. Here’s hoping that isn’t the case.

A solid first effort from Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a beautifully animated feature that should mesmerise audiences young and old. Though it could have used the guiding hand of another Studio Ghibli staffer, the film verifies that Nishimura and his team are well and truly capable of continuing his alma mater’s legacy.

3.5 stars

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