Mary leans on the Ghibli tradition moreso than Ponoc say, but without the sheer charm and joy that made those films so loved to begin with.
By Jack Gracie 16 May, 2018
Before I get to the proper review I just wanted to say that there is an interview with the director and the producer of Mary and the Witches Flower up on our website that will be linked in the description. There's only a few questions just because we had limited time and there was translation back and forth. But yeah, give it a read if you're interested in more.
Mary the Witch's Flower is the first film by Studio Ponoc; meaning "midnight" or "a brand new day" as a majority are staff that have left Studio Ghibli to start their own company. Yonebayashi, the director, he originally did ‘When Marnie Was There’ and ‘The Secret Life of Arietty’, and basically when Studio Ghibli started shutting now and it’s masters announced they were no longer producing feature films, its younger staff thought: "Well... We still want to do stuff. We'd like to have jobs" and so they have set off on their own ways.
There is a quote from the original book that they cited a lot in a lot of the interview materials where Mary says at one point: "I want to open this door but I want to open it without using magic no matter how long that takes" and that is kind of how they've cited their mindset going into this film. They wanted a character that liked magic, but then realized at the end of it that they no longer needed magic to be who they were. That is the context that they've seen for moving on from the magic of Studio Ghibli.
I understand that concept, however I think that they don't push far enough with this film to be completely separate from the past.
I also think there's something with that statement where you say "We don't want magic" – as it’s disregarding that that is the aspect most people like about Studio Ghibli? They like that it's got this magical element to it, this fantasy, this wonder, and saying we want to leave the magic of Studio Ghibili behind -- I know that they're highlighting its reputation moreso than the actual style of the films, because this is very much a continuation of that. But it's a touchstone that I think highlights a few of the flaws going into the final product.
Mary and the Witch's Flower is based on the English novel The Little Broomstick. Mary has moved to live with her elderly aunt in the countryside and it's summer so she's just waiting to start school in this new area. So she's left in the house with just elderly people and nothing to really do and so she's very bored and she slowly starts exploring the nearby countryside. While doing that she follows some cats finds the magical witch's flower and a broomstick. By crushing one of the flower’s berries she gains magical powers for those 24 hours and the broom sets off and takes her away to Endor College where she finds a magical headmistress and plots happens, as it tends to do sometimes.
As films go it's not particularly flawed in any way, it's just missing that magic that they wanted to kind of step away from. Mary feels like a compilation of all the kind of stubborn Ghibili girls rolled into one, but with nothing in particular defining her. It's also a very similar plot of being whisked away to a magical building run by a kind of creepy crony old woman who uses magic to control the girl at several times and it ultimately wraps into a story of Technology versus nature. So to say this is a film that is entirely branching out from what's happened before would be… untruthful.
They have also said in all the promotional materials that they didn't deliberately go out to try and make a film that would be popular and make money - they wanted to make something that they wanted to make; and again I think, is that really true? Because, granted, the director’s previous two books that he's adapted into films are English fantasy novels by female writers around the same era, So that's definitely in his MO, but the past two films were definitely smaller in scale and a lot more focused on human drama and emotions. Whereas this is on a much larger scale and just seems to skim over a lot of the human element of the film.
As you could probably see in the trailer obviously the animation is just top-notch all the way through. I think they've put a majority of the kind of flourishes in the trailer so you've probably already seen it on this video but there are some really amazingly animated sections.
I don't know why I've left off this review so long because I saw it a while ago and when I think back to it I just think that there wasn't that much to remember about it. Like I said the characters were kind of cut-out, the plot was... I wouldn't venture to say predictable but it wasn't particularly imaginative and the moments where the film was being imaginative it seemed to really brush over to get back to a plot that I wasn't that interested in. In all of the interviews they mentioned how passionate they were about this project and I'd watched the behind-the-scenes documentary on the amount of work that they did put into it and the amount of late nights - but watching the final film you don't feel that. You don't feel the passion.
You don't feel like this is a story that he really wants to tell. It feels like the story that the studio wants to tell to get a really good first start and I can understand that because starting a studio, especially a high quality animation feature film studio, is just-- it's a very very risky move. It just is. I'm not saying that they don't love animation, obviously they love animation that's why they are wanting to make this, but they need to set a good foundation for that company and I completely understand that but I just think that it means that whatever Ponoc come out with next potentially, or maybe the film after that, if they continue to be successful I just think that this will be looked back on as the safe foundation from which they tried to build something new.
I can't hate the film for that. But it doesn't mean I have to love it or particularly like it. I don't think there was much to watch back on. I think that if you maybe have a kid, they might enjoy it. Just a kid that loves fantasy in particular But for adults-- like adults can re-watch a lot of the classic Ghibili films and still feel that wonder of it and the fun. Personally I just don't think there was enough of that here to really get me excited about it.