Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director and writer), Toru Fukushi (cinematographer), Atsuko Tanaka, Shinji Ôtsuka, and Shin’ya Ôhira (key animators), Riko Sakaguchi (writer)
Ruby Barnhill, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Lynda Baron, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Ewen Bremner (English cast)
Based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
Released July 8, 2017 (Japan), January 19, 2018 (US)

With big name animation studios like Disney and Dreamworks focusing almost entirely on 3D animation, Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a refreshing call-back to the more traditional 2D art form.

Back in 2013, Hayao Miyazaki and fellow founder Isao Takahata announced they were retiring from Studio Ghibli. Although the retirement didn’t stick, the announcement pushed several Ghibli animators to start imaging a career separate from the Miyazaki brand. This led to former Ghibli film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi to create Studio Ponoc in 2015. Ponoc’s first feature film is obviously influenced by Miyazaki’s style, but it’s also a compelling opening statement for the fledgling studio. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is not an incredible film, but it’s also nowhere near a disappointing one.

The film introduces us to the young Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill in the English dub), a precocious, klutzy, and restless protagonist who means well, but is kind of a bull in a china shop. Mary, above all else, seems defined by two things: an eagerness to help, but also a desperation to be acknowledged as somebody worthwhile. Mary doesn’t seem to have any friends at the start of the film, and she finds herself plain to look at, with too bright, too frizzy hair. Mary lives with her elderly Great Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron), and we’re told in passing that her parents aren’t around, but “on their way”–we never quite learn from where or why. We just know Mary is lonely, dissatisfied, and bored.

Mary’s desire for adventure and attention soon leads her to trail a neighborhood cat into the woods, where she finds an abandoned broom and a bloom of preternaturally bright blue flowers called “fly-by-nights.” She discovers, quite suddenly, that crushing the berries on the flower causes the holder to temporarily gain extraordinarily powerful magical powers. She accidentally “wakes up” the broom with these powers, and the broom whisks her away to Endor College, a magical castle in the sky where the most accomplished witches train. Thanks to the fly-by-nights, Mary is immediately singled out for her incredible magical prowess, and she preens under the onslaught of attention. Only the most extraordinary witches are born with bright red hair, she’s told.

Mary’s a protagonist that feels markedly different–much louder, more energetic, and more brash–from the ones found in Ghibli’s more recent works, like When Marnie Was There and the tragically sad Tale of Princess Kaguya. In an interview with The Verge, Nishimura says that has to do with Miyazaki and Takahata getting on in age, and becoming more concerned with interior struggles and questions of life and death. “A lot of the stories toward the end were stories of parting,” Nishimura says. “When they were younger, in their 30s and 40s, they handled different types of topic—lively encounters of people meeting.”

With Nishimura and Yonebayashi around the same age Miyazaki and Takahata were when they first started out, Studio Ponoc and Witch’s Flower certainly embodies a more hopeful outlook, full of vitality and the promise of endless adventure. We soon learn that Endor College is not as it appears, and that the bright world full of curious knickknacks, cloud-powered transportation, and animal familiars is just a facade for a much more sinister purpose. Headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), the mentors who welcome Mary to Endor College, are not as kindly as they appear to be. Only Mary, alongside her newfound neighbor and friend Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), can stop the nefarious plans that are brewing in the secret caverns of Endor.

To go more into the story would be to reveal it’s lack of depth. It’s not clear what this could be attributed to: with it being Ponoc’s first film, or because of the source material, The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart. It’s possible it’s both. Stewart’s book is a little over 100 pages, more novella than novel. In that same Verge interview, Nishimura openly talks about how finding financing was difficult as they were complete unknowns, and they had to purchase all new hardware, software, computers, and servers. “Within these limitations, we had to aim for the quality and meaningful content similar to films Studio Ghibli had made. That was a very tough bar for us to accomplish,” Nishimura says.

This may be why many of the locales look and feel curiously flat. The forest Mary wanders into is devoid of all life, and outside of the key characters we don’t meet anyone else in Mary’s town or in Endor. Unlike the depth of field and intricacy you see in something like Howl’s Moving Castle, there’s no sense that anyone actually lives and works in Endor, and that there’s much more to see than the two classrooms and deserted courtyard we’re already shown. It’s a beautifully animated, but ultimately empty space. Are Mumblechook and Dee the only teachers there? Who are all the masked students we see in the classrooms, and why don’t we ever talk to any of them? Why do they only appear in the beginning of the film? By the end of the film Endor feels like less of a real place and more of a set dressing for the characters to move in front of and occasionally around.

One can’t say much for Endor or the villains and their shallow motivations, but Witch’s Flower is at it’s best when it focuses on Mary and then her blooming friendship with Peter. Peter is more easy-going and–we’re told, at least–more pure-hearted than Mary; the two have a prickly relationship at the beginning of the film, but their childish insults soon give way to trust and camaraderie. Peter exists in the film for Mary to grow as a person–a refreshing subversion, as it’s often the girl filling that role for the male protagonist. It’s Mary’s fault that Peter becomes embroiled in Mumblechook’s and Dee’s machinations, and Peter’s subsequent damseling provides Mary the extra impetus to face her fears.

In the end, the message that you don’t need to be born gifted, but just need to have passion and determination to accomplish something, is a worthwhile message. Mary makes for an interesting protagonist, one you’re willing to follow even when you know the plot is not as good as it could be. The visuals are not at the same level as Ghibli, but the artistry and care also feels leagues away from many of the 3D animated films stuffing the market right now. For what it is, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is an impressive first outing for Studio Ponoc, and I can’t wait to see where they’ll take us next.