What it's about: Mary Smith is a bored girl in rural England. She's moved to a new town to live with her great aunt while awaiting her parents arrival. She doesn't particularly care about school, doesn't have any friends, and while she tries to be useful, nothing good seems to happen for anyone when she tries. That is until a neighborhood cat named Tibb leads her into the woods one day. There she finds a beautiful flower with great magical powers. She is swept away to a wonderful world of witches and warlocks, a place where Mary immediately thrives. But those in power may not have the best intentions for their new young visitor.
Studio Ghibli hasn't gone away yet, but as the cornerstone figures of the famed Japanese animation studio reach the end of their careers, many have wondered if the coming gap can be filled. Studio Ponoc's debut film Mary and the Witch's Flower certainly shows that Ghibli's legacy will live on. The animation style, characters, sense of wonder, female-led narrative, and more call upon the tropes and trademarks beautifully.
If you had told me that the film was made by Ghibli in the mid-90s and was uncovered for a new release, I'd believe you. But is it a watered down version of Ghibli's work? Is it too derivative of the themes and narrative tropes? I can see the argument. Though Mary and the Witch's Flower is a perfectly entertaining and beautifully animated film, it doesn't advance the animated style or narratives we've seen from Ghibli over the last 30 years.
It has to be recognized, though, that this film isn't made by outsider hacks looking to capitalize on the work of others. The film was directed by Hiromasa Yonebashi who made two films under the Ghibli umbrella, The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, two of the most underrated entries in the studio's filmography. Its executive producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura, worked on Howl's Moving Castle and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. These artists know the standards of Studio Ghibli and their work helped define those standards.
Aside from the Ghibli influences, there are also bright shades of Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter.
Adapted from Mary Stewart's The Little Broomstick, this is strangely the third film from Yonebashi from a Western source. With the Japanese animation techniques, this always creates a weird hurdle for me. Typically, I try to watch the films in the original language with subtitles. But with the film obviously taking place in the British countryside and involving a character named "Mary Smith," I had to switch it over to the English-language track a few minutes in. I guess I'm saying is the dubbing of animation is fluid. A cut-and-dry approach to watching foreign-produced animation is unproductive.
The English-language voice cast includes Jim Broadbent, Kate Winslet and Ewen Bremner so that's good.
Mary and the Witch's Flower opens up in full action with a red-haired witch escaping a burning castle with a pouch of glowing seeds. Not much is explained and the film quickly shifts to Mary's simple life. The mystery of who this woman is and why she has such a striking resemblance to our young protagonist lingers through to the end.
Throughout, there are a number of thrilling sequences: Mary's tour through the witch college is full of fun discoveries and world building design; later, a daring escape is the action and animation highlight of the film as a spell breaks the curse set on a group of imprisoned oddities.
Mary is a strong protagonist and a good hero for young girls. She's bright, clever, kind-hearted, courageous, and self-sacrificing when considering those who need help. She's very much like the classic Ghibli protagonists though she may showcase more agency while maintaining the typical wondrous curiosity.
If Studio Ponoc is the main source to take the reins from Studio Ghibli, Mary and the Witch's Flower is a fine but safe start. One of the great joys of recent Ghibli films is how they've broken the mold of the studio template. Films like When Marnie Was There and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, for example, have a unique visual style apart from Miyazaki's body of work. The worst thing Ponoc could do is become a Ghibli clone -- after one feature, this isn't a fair concern quite yet. I'm excited to see what Ponoc and Yonebashi do next.