Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a nice first offering from the relatively new Studio Ponoco (founded by former Studio Ghibli lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, as well as several staffers that joined him after Ghibli decided to pause all production for re-evaluation) and features some truly beautiful animation, in keeping with the standards set by its legendary forebears. Based on the novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, this is a beautiful and fun film that will captivate you with its exploration of a child’s innocence and the complicated mix of trouble, kindness and optimism that innocence brings. It may not be perfect, but it is nonetheless a very enjoyable experience that mostly captures the essence of some of the great Studio Ghibli movies.
Mary is an ordinary, spirited young girl who’s stuck in the British countryside with her Great Aunt Charlotte. With nothing to do, no friends in sight and no excitement at hand, Mary is bored — until she stumbles across a strange feline that takes her to the nearby forest, where she finds a mysterious blue glowing flower and an old broomstick. Soon, she’s whisked away to a world of magic and fantasy, and finds herself on an adventure like she’d never imagined. Naturally, the film is strongly influenced by its Ghibli roots, particularly Howl’s Moving Castle and Kiki’s Delivery Service, but it also draws from the the wizarding world of Harry Potter, with its overall magical tone and school setting. I’ve always been a huge fan of Ghibli films, and with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Studio Ponoc manages to replicate the Ghibli aesthetic brilliantly. Seeing it took me back to my childhood, where I would watch films like Princess Mononoke with my mom. Heartwarming, beautiful and creative, the animation in this movie is truly splendid. The bedroom in Charlotte’s house is so beautiful (the view from her window is phenomenal!) that I took screenshots of it as an inspiration to design my future bedroom.
I’ve emphasized many times how music plays a fundamental role in the success of an anime, and Mary and the Witch is yet another example of this. The soundtrack always matches the mood and setting of the accompanying scene, evoking just the right emotions. It may not be as great as the works of Joe Hisaishi, but it’s well above average.”Rain,” the final song, is particularly amazing; rock band Sekai No Owari are well-known around the world for their amazing talent, but “Rain” is indescribably wonderful, even by their lofty standards. It’s a comforting way to end the story, which is exactly what we need.
To the film’s credit, the voice dubbing is actually pretty good. It’s really cool to listen to characters with English accents in an anime film, especially one that’s based on a story written in England. Ruby Barnhill is great as Mary, Ewen Bremmer is hilarious as Flanagan, and Kate Winslet (yes, THE Kate Winslet) is nearly unrecognizable as Madame Mumblechook, the headmistress of the magical school. Mary is a fine heroine. She’s funny, acting like a tough girl who gets annoyed at all the frivolous things that you would expect a little girl to enjoy. Her clumsiness is fun, giving her a bit of charm that makes her that much more likable. The character development isn’t perfect, though, and some of the supporting players feel slightly abandoned by the narrative at times. For example, Peter is the “co-star” of the film, and I use air quotes because we are not given much of a reason to care about him. At first Mary doesn’t like Peter because he pokes fun at her, calling her a red monkey because of her messy red hair, and they constantly argue. It’s funny, but then later on, when — without spoiling anything — something happens to Peter, all of a sudden Mary acts worried and wants to save him, as if he was her best friend. The writers didn’t bother to build up a bond between Mary and Peter; had the film taken at least fifteen minutes to develop their friendship, this problem would have been remedied. Instead, the relationship between Mary and Peter turns out to be one of Mary and the Witch’s Flower’s biggest flaws. Overall, though, the quality of the characters is good enough to carry the story.
Unfortunately, the villains are more forgettable than those in any of the Ghibli films from which Mary and the Witch’s Flower takes its inspiration. Their motivation is not explored very well; they just want to create an abomination based on magic flowers no real reason. Their scheme comes off as a lazy way to create conflict for our heroes. Children’s stories commonly have villains with half-baked motives for their evil plans, but that’s not an excuse for poor writing. I’m not asking for anything incredibly deep; just give me a reason to care about their intent so I’m invested in the Mary’s struggle with them. Mary and the Witch’s Flower fails to do so, and the villains are bland as a result. In addition, the ending is a little too rushed. There isn’t enough time for the climax to resolve itself, so the movie just abruptly ends.This is a shame, because the story is largely well told, employing some strong foreshadowing, such as when Madam Mumblechook addresses how Mary’s red hair is rare and is the mark of a powerful witch. Ultimately, it all holds together, but the lapses here and there detract from what could’ve been something really special.
Mary and Witch’s Flower is a solid film, and I’m glad Studio Ponoc started out so strongly. It has issues, including some of the pacing and writing, but it’s a lot of fun and I look forward to the fledgling studio’s next piece. If you are a fan of Studio Ghibli, and are yearning to see a full-length feature film in traditional 2D animation, go see this movie; just don’t go in expecting it to be as good as one of the Studio Ghibli classics.