Animation fans have been in mourning since the maestro Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement from feature films and Studio Ghibli’s pause on major productions. The closure is not permanent, with Miyazaki embarking off for another post-retirement film. Even so, to fill in the chasm of fans’ aesthetic appetite for Ghibli wonders, producer Yoshiaki Nishimura founded Studio Ponac, named for the dawn of a new era. Although Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a Ponac debut, it has been deemed a worthy progeny of Studio Ghibli, with a team of Ghibli alumni and Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There) at the directorial helm.
Adapted from The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Mary and the Witch’s Flower dives straight into a fiery bang and crackle of urgency in the midst of a red-haired, broomstick-riding witch’s heist, her motive unexplained as the action unfurls. The skirmish throws her flight off balance and her stolen goods (glittering seeds) drop into the forest, from which tree bursts instantaneously into existence.
Then the story shifts into pastoral mundaneness and centers around a heroine stressed about her ordinariness. Mary (Ruby Barnhill, with precociousness sweetness) is a ginger-haired girl who moved into her great-aunt’s place and is not looking forward to the drastic changes. Bored to death, even chores interests her to assuage her feelings of klutzy uselessness. She forms a shaky rapport with local boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), who mocks her red-hair but becomes remorseful once he learns it messes with her self-esteem. As Mary lies in wait for something interesting to happen, her prayers are answered when she follows two squee-adorable cats into the forest and stumbles upon extraordinary blue fly-by-night flowers and eventually an abandoned broomstick. The flowers imbue her with great powers and activate the broomstick to life so it can seize her away to a witch’s academy. The broomstick deposits the reluctant adventurer onto the campus of Endor College, a Hogwarts in the clouds, where she beholds awesome powers and potential with excitement and trepidation at every corridor and prospective curriculum.
Colorful characters provide her a tour of the magical amenities with fantastical introductions out of Alice In Wonderland. Mary’s newfound broomstick serves as a vivacious wordless character, hopping like a zealous pogo-stick and swiping into the air. A fusion of Dumbledore-McGonagall, headmistresses Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) is revealed through a giant gush of water before her mortal form surfaces. At Madame’s side is Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent, a Harry Potter alumni for spiritual homage) a short professor with an affinity for science-influenced magic who whizzes around in his scooter and blathers about his next concoction. Although tempted to enroll and participate in a world that transcends her normalcy, Mary also discovers that the two teachers’ passion for magic has brewed a sinister conspiracy and a gold fever for the fly-by-nights.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower cultivates many of the staples of the Ghibli treasury: empathetic environmental close-ups of towering trees spurting from the ground a-la My Neighbor Totoro; naturalistic landscapes with subtle twinkles of hues; the wonders (and perils) of technological advancement where electricity is celebrated as a form of magic; a bildungsroman about extracting courage within your soul like in Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.
With those classic elements at his whims, Yonebayashi mines much charm and action from its premise. The animation dazzles with the elasticity of transformation and expression: the gusher of gelatinous liquids and monsters, creatures popping into existence with the snap of a witch’s finger and the kinetic dance of broomstick psychics.
I want to resist comparing Mary and the Witch’s Flower to the measure of Studio Ghibli. But it derives so many Ghibli rudiments and motifs that I must discuss the film in relation to its company predecessor — or co-existing companion, since Ghibli has not shut down yet.
Despite vibrant ingredients and infectious players, the narrative does feel undercooked in its poetry against the Ghibli classics. Like Castle in the Sky, Mary and the Witch’s Flower hones an effective cautionary tale about the decadence of ambition. But Mary does struggle to uphold an epic scale matching the thematic hefts of Princess Mononoke and Castle in the Sky, falling short of a classic level of memorability. The climatic firecrackers of imagery are full of pizazz but not quite revelatory as one could hope.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a delectable concoction that would benefit from a dose of potency. While it doesn’t pop with philosophical resonance like Ghibli pictures, it has enough fairy dust in its sleeves to keep you transfixed and rooting for the heroine. Let us hope the movie has seeded more Ponac delights for the future.
Caroline Cao (@Maximinalist) is a queer Vietnamese-Houstonian Earthling surviving under the fickle weather of New York. When not angsting over her first poetry manuscript or a pilot screenplay about space samurais, she is cooking her own Chinese food instead of buying take-out and dreaming of winning Hamilton lotto tickets. Carol has lent her wit and pop culture love to Birth Movies Death, The Mary Sue, Film School Rejects and The Script Lab. She also runs a New York living blog and writing services.