Studio Ghibli has produced many beloved and cherished Japanese movies. Under the direction of Founder, Hayao Miyzaki, audiences around the world fell in love with a cat bus, a witch with a red bow, a moving castle, and floating castles.
With these movies, there are specific identifying factors that mark them as a Studio Ghibli animations. They are fantasy stories featuring a strong child character with beautiful detailed scenery, unforgettable music and most important of all: heart.
Miyazaki declared his retirement in 2013. Two years later, Yoshiaki Nishimura founded Studio Ponoc, along with other former Studio Ghibli animators. The studio released Mary and the Witch’s Flower after two years of work.
The movie is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (former Studio Ghibli animator who worked on Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo) and is based off Mary Stewart’s 1971 classic children’s book The Little Broomstick.
Official Movie synopsis:
Mary is an ordinary young girl stuck in the country with her Great-Aunt Charlotte and seemingly no adventures or friends in sight. She follows a mysterious cat into the nearby forest, where she discovers an old broomstick and the strange Fly-by-Night flower, a rare plant that blossoms only once every seven years and only in that forest. Together the flower and the broomstick whisk Mary above the clouds, and far away to Endor College – a school of magic run by headmistress Madam Mumblechook and the brilliant Doctor Dee. But there are terrible things happening at the school, and when Mary tells a lie, she must risk her life to try to set things right.
From all of the information above, this sets it all up nicely for an exciting and bright new chapter after the dusk of Studio Ghibli. Everything is there for Ghibli fan to clutch on to. The release of the movie poster has such a striking resemblance to a Studio Ghibli movie with its bright colors, trademark facial design, and a female lead. It took several double takes to realize that this was a Studio Ponoc production. With magic, a female main character, a cat and a magic school, the expectations for another whimsical animation legend was sky high.
Just as the little broom sputters out of power in the movie, Mary and the Witch’s Flower , plummets in delivery of animated style, story, and real connection. If this was produced by a new burgeoning movie studio, outside of the blatant style of Ghibli, this movie would have been ok. With the significance of the history of the animators, it is pretty disappointing.
The movie begins strong enough. There is action and danger as we watch a red haired young woman escape clutching a small pouch. With impeccable timing and finesse, she is able to hop on her broomstick and make her escape. So far, so good. Then the “henchmen” arrive and this was the first jarring moment. The “henchmen” wobble along as helmeted bipedal figures that ooze out gray gelatinous flying squid tendrils. The animation seems off but can easily be dismissed as the gait of a non-human. The gelatinous flying squid is very strange. Not only is it a flying squid-like creature but it appears to be lacking in details and any sense of danger. The flying paper birds in Spirited Away had more menace. For some reason, the red-hared young woman slows down, a light bursts , and she topples to the ground. Please note, she was above the cloud line. From that height and speed how the heck she was not pulverized into mushy bits of body parts is beyond me.
Upon landing the little pouch flies open and we find that it contains seeds that topple out and instantly create looming trees and vines that encase the broomstick. A mysterious shining bloom opens up. Thanks to the curious British heroine, we learn that this is the bloom of a Witch’s flower, which only blooms once every seven years.
We are introduced to Mary with her unruly red hair. For reasons that may have been mentioned in the movie but I have forgotten, Mary had moved to the countryside to live with her Aunt. We quickly learn several things about Mary: she hates her red hair, she leaps before looking, she is about to start school, she is over-eager, very clumsy, and very bored. So bored that she would rather help the gardener. So bored, that she is willing to follow two strange cats into the woods. Here is where the story stutters in character development. For a “clumsy” girl, she sure can scale boulders and all sorts of forest shrubbery with ease. Here is another head scratching moment, why would the cats lead her through the forest to the Witch’s flower, only to fluff their backs up and hiss at it in warning?
Speaking of the cats, Tibb and Gibb are animated so blandly. Only the black cat (Tib? Or was it Gib?) seems to have any personality but that is only emoted through mewing and dramatic un-feline- like expressions. The narrow bored eyes are the black cat’s defining feature and it doesn’t invoke anything. The black cat is definitely no Gigi (black cat from Kiki’s Delivery Service).
By the time Mary lands upon Endor School, the movie either seems to reference or draw on two Ghibli movies. With Mary being called a “witch” flying around on her broomstick, Kiki’s Delivery Service comes to mind. Then there is the floating school in the clouds with forestry and creatures of Castle In the Sky influence. Whether or not it’s intentional it’s very distracting to Ghibli fans as immediate comparisons are made and Mary and the Witche’s Flower definitely pales.
There is limited detail in the movie as the background and creatures seem to be animated in a very diluted version of Ghibli style. There weren’t any moments in the movie that felt artistic or magical. No dramatic highlighting of actions or richness in sound quality. Studio Ghibli had a way of connecting the environment closely to the story so one felt like they were there, no matter how impossible it may be. One could sense feeling the steam from the bath house in Spirited Away or the fire crackling around Sophie in Howl’s Moving Castle.
Never having read (and honestly never heard) or the book, I cannot vouch for what is similar or different with this film. One major contention for this movie for me however was what was the point of it all?! The major driving force for the villain is to obtain the Witch’s flower to catalyze an experiment to create an unlimited magical creature. This leaves the audience with SO many questions.
When we ARE introduced to Endor school, magic is everywhere. Every student is using magic. It is mentioned that they practice magic but the source of its power seems to be drawn from within. No one is smashing the Witch flowers between their palms so why even bother with an unstable source like the flowers that bloom every seven years as its power only lasts for about a day?
Why would you want to create an unlimited magic creature? Why not try to duplicate the power of the flower to be used upon yourself? Why create another being that would over power you in magic? Why even create this when it already seems that unlimited magic is already seen. We see characters flinging out spells with no signs of taxation upon their bodies. The Witches flower is utterly pointless and silly.
I honestly wanted to love it. I went in with an open heart and willingness to add another animated legend to my collection. For a first movie out of Studio Ponoc,it is a meager offering to Ghibli fans. I hope that the Studio will adapt their Ghibli style into their own and focus more on delivering a great story.
With the lack of animated movies on the market, it is worth it to support the animated studio by catching it in theaters now and when it comes out on DVD. It is still a lovely movie to watch with children and anyone who is a fan of animated movies.
Check out the website for Mary and the Witch’s Flower for more info and showtimes here: https://www.maryandthewitchsflower.com/