Tell me, what do you do with witches?
Mary and the Witch's Flower is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and is based on the novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. It is the first animated feature by Studio Ponoc. The English-language version stars the voices of Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, and Jim Broadbent.
To attempt to discuss Studio Ponoc without bringing up Studio Ghibli is a straight-up impossible task. In August 2014, Studio Ghibli announced they would be halting all future productions following the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki, generating fear that the studio would never produce another feature film ever again. Thus, Ghibli's lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura left and went to found Studio Ponoc in 2015, with several former Ghibli animators joining the new studio and helping Nishimura work on the studio's first feature film: Mary and the Witch's Flower. The word ponoc is Polish for "midnight", signifying, "the start of a new day." In other words, the name Ponoc is Nishimura's studio's way of saying, "Studio Ghibli is no more. We are the start of a new era for anime."
With so much of Studio Ponoc being rooted in Studio Ghibli, it's perfectly understandable that someone would mistake Mary and the Witch's Flower for a Ghibli film. It looks like a Ghibli film, and the only thing that would make someone start to question if Mary and the Witch's Flower is in fact a Ghibli film (assuming the viewer didn't see "Studio Ponoc" anywhere in the opening credits) is the fact that British actors are behind the English dubbed voices, as opposed to American actors, who have done the vast majority of dubbed voices for Ghibli films. Who knows if British dubbed voices will become a tradition for Ponoc? The again, it could the simple matter that Mary and the Witch's Flower has a setting in Great Britain.
But enough backstory. Mary and the Witch's Flower works in a lot of ways, though I wouldn't say it's any kind of smashing success. I highly doubt this will become any kind of anime classic that should be considered alongside the likes of Grave of the Fireflies and Spirited Away, because as gorgeous as the animation is, the script borrows quite a bit from earlier, fantasy-based works, giving the film a harder time trying to stave off banality. Now, don't get me wrong: this is far from a banal film. The film may use familiar ideas, but it spices them up enough to warrant a pleasant viewing and give us reason to believe that Studio Ponoc is capable of doing great things. It may take them a while to get to those great things, but for what Mary and the Witch's Flower is as an anime film, Ponoc isn't off to a bad start.
The Mary in the title refers to the young, red-haired girl, Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki/Ruby Barnhill). She moves into the British estate of her Great Aunt Charlotte, just ahead of her parents. Mary turns out to have no friends, and she frequently makes a mess of things whenever she tries to do chores. A young boy named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki/Louis Ashbourne Serkis) makes fun of Mary for both her clumsiness and her red hair, calling her a red-haired monkey. One day, Mary finds two cats named Tib and Gib, and they lead Mary into a forest, where she finds strange flowers that glow. Mary takes one of the flowers and shows it to the estate's gardener, Zebedee (Kenichi Endo/Rasmus Hardiker), who identifies the flower as a "fly-by-night", said to coveted by witches because the flower holds magical power.
The next day, Gib goes missing and Mary goes with Tib to look for her. Tib leads Mary to a broomstick that is caught underneath a tree's roots. Mary is able to retrieve the broomstick, but she accidentally bursts one of the fly-by-night buds, releasing a gooey blue substance that sticks to the broomstick. Suddenly, the broomstick comes to life, and Mary starts to fly on it like a witch. The broom takes Mary and Tib up into the sky, eventually coming across a series of buildings. Mary crash-lands the broomstick, and encounters a fox creature named Flanagan (Jiro Sato/Ewen Bremner), who tells Mary that she needs to go the Endor College for witches. Mary goes to the college and meets the headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Yuki Amami/Kate Winslet) and the college's top chemistry teacher Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata/Jim Broadbent). The two are convinced that Mary is some kind of prodigy, as her red hair is a feature among the best witches. But Mary finds out that Madam and Doctor Dee have sinister plans, plans that involve obtaining the fly-by-night flowers.
- There are all sorts of captivating visuals in Mary and the Witch's Flower, particularly its elegant long shots of nature. Every lovely shade of green is present, whether it's in a shot of Mary running through the forest, or in a more bird's eye view shot when Mary is flying on the broomstick.
Wide shots we see of Endor College also show off terrific color schemes and well-detailed backdrops that make the entire frame a spectacle to the eye. The animation is so good that there was one scene where I was convinced for a few seconds that the movie all of a sudden became live-action: a tight shot near the end, showing little more than a few blades of grass. It was the most realistic looking grass that I have probably ever seen in an animated film. No matter where a scene is taking place, the movie is going to provide you with magnificent visuals. It's better for me to say as little as possible, so that if and when you decide to watch the movie for yourself, you can get as much of an experience from the visuals as possible.
- While there are some issues with the script/plot, Mary and the Witch's Flower's story is memorable in that it turns normal fantasy conventions on their heads by refusing to play along with the, "embrace your destiny" story line that Mary has going for herself. Mary does not ever fall in love with riding on the broomstick, nor does she ever take great joy in learning magic spells. Instead, Mary is put into situations where she has to use magic, not because she's trying to prove anything to anybody, but because others are in danger and Mumblechook and Doctor Dee will succeed in their evil endeavors if she doesn't use magic. Mary never takes the time to learn the ways of a witch nor go through some montage where she becomes more acquainted with her ability to cast spells and act like a witch. She has no witch mentor either; she just is told that she has the characteristics of a witch. Mary simply chooses not to accept her witch potential. Destiny? What's that?
- The issues of Mary and the Witch's Flower that I've been alluding to are specifically about characterization and certain parts of the writing. To start with, Endor College might as well be Hogwarts for college-level wizards and witches, certain details coming straight out of the Harry Potter novels. Doctor Dee's chemistry class might as well be Snape's Potions class, and when Mumblechook brings Mary inside the college for the first time, we see stairwells that look just like the ones inside Hogwarts. Screenwriters Riko Sakaguchi and Yonebayashi don't seem to be making any real effort to keep Endor College as disparate as possible from Hogwarts and the world of Harry Potter.
As for characters, the motivation behind Mumblechook and Doctor Dee's evil scheme never becomes fully clear, as the movie spends a great deal of time telling us what Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are going to do, but not exactly why they are going to do something bad. Mary; the extent of her characterization is that she's a little clumsy and has no friends, but neither of those two traits are explored in any meaningful capacity. Maybe every one of Mary's school mates finds her red hair unusual, making Mary a target for bullies. Except, that never happens, as does a scene in which Mary questions why she has no friends. Those two bits for potential character development are simply dropped into the beginning of the film and then forgotten about later on. None of the other characters are worth discussing in length, 'cause none of them have much of anything worth saying.
In conclusion though, Mary and the Witch's Flower makes up for most of its shortcomings with character and plot with visuals that are maximum level eye candy and a more unconventional approach to its overarching "this is your destiny" fantasy story line. It's a good opening act for Studio Ponoc, and assures that they have a bright future ahead. I, myself, am looking forward to seeing what Ponoc will come up with in the near future. Hopefully one day they can start making masterful works right up there with what Studio Ghibli has already created. Mary and the Witch's Flower has put Ponoc on the map, and soon we'll see which direction that Ponoc decides to go.
Recommend? Yes. This is nothing groundbreaking, but it's an anime film that is worth a watch.
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