Mary & The Witch’s Flower (Cert PG)
1 Disc DVD / 1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Altitude Films) Running time: 103 minutes approx.
If you’ll forgive the flippancy, a more accurate title would be Harry Potter & Marnie Mononoke’s Spirited Moving Delivery Service In The Sky. There is a reason for saying this which we’ll discuss later on but it is hard to shake the derivative nature of this debut outing for Studio Ponoc, a new anime production company with one hell of a pedigree.
Based on the novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, we are introduced to accident prone Mary Smith, a young red haired girl recently moved to the country to live with her Great Aunt Charlotte. Whilst alone in the woods, Mary encounters a black cat named Tib that leads her to a luminous blue plant, which Mary takes home and the gardener Zebedee identifies as a Fly-By-Night, supposedly able to grant magical powers.
The next day Mary and Tib search for Gib, Tib’s missing partner, instead finding a broomstick which comes alive and flies Mary to a strange land in the sky, Endor College for witches. Believing Mary to be a witch of prodigious talents, Headmistress Madam Mumblechook enrols Mary into the college but trouble arises when Mary uncovers the secret experiments conducted behind the scenes by science master, Doctor Dee.
So, to explain the sarcastic opening to this review. Studio Ponoc is an offshoot of the legendary Studio Ghibli to give the staff an outlet, whilst Ghibli was on hiatus between the death of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki coming out of retirement again. Ponoc offers fans the chance to get their Ghibli fix via the porting over of the distinctive art style and character designs of their mentors.
Handling directing duties on Mary is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who helmed the “last” Ghibli film When Marnie Was There, and like his Oscar nominated effort, shows signs of having picked up Miyazaki’s ability to create a whimsical and charming world of wonder as seen through the eyes of a plucky female protagonist. But Mary sees Yonebayashi try a little too hard in emulating Miyazaki hence the numerous blatant reference points.
But to dwell on this is to do a huge disservice to Yonebayashi and his crew who at least deserve kudos for not sitting on their hands and waiting for the work to come their way. Not everyone can score a hit with their first outing and the potential Ponoc has to run parallel to Ghibli and hopefully carve out their own niche in the future is undeniably. The heart, the ability and the ides are there, they just need to be nurtured and fine-tuned.
The film opens in media res with a laboratory exploding into a raging fire amidst which, a red haired girl on a flying broomstick escapes, carrying a pouch which she drops, the contents of which fall into the ground. When the scene jumps to our first sighting of Mary we notice the similarity between the two red heads, the inference being this is a flashback or perhaps she is a younger double for the other girl.
All is revealed later in the film, but in the meantime we learn that Mary hates her frizzy red hair and gets upset when local boy Peter, owner of Tib and Gib, teases her about it, calling her a “red headed monkey” – which later serves as the basis for a cute joke. This unpleasant first meeting sets us up for the inevitable friendship that will come later but the path to it is a little different from what you might expect.
Visually, Endor College is part Laputa and part-Harry Potter whilst Madam Mumblechook is a slimmer version of Yubaba and Dr. Dee has six arms less and more hair than his Spirited Away boiler dwelling look-a-like Kamaji. Mary is welcomed with open arms when she first arrives courtesy of the magical broomstick, showing a rare aptitude for being a witch that delights Mumblechook but baffles Mary, who considers herself useless.
But this convivial attitude changes when Mary reveals the Fly-By-Night temporarily gave her magic powers and Tib isn’t even her cat, and Mary is sent home, unaware that she has inadvertently stolen a book of spells from Mumblechook. That night Mary receives a message from Mumblechook saying she’s kidnapped Peter and Mary is to bring the Fly-By-Night to the college in exchange for his release.
Mary obliges but her plight is far from over as Mumblechook goes back on her word after discovering Mary has her spell book, and Peter is now earmarked to be the latest in Dr. Dee’s experiments in transforming animals into the ultimate magical being. Like many Ghibli films, the tone shifts to something darker but stays within the parameters of its PG rating, so no tragic Fullmetal Alchemist style horror here.
In fact, everything is played rather safe, which is fine, but the sense that Yonebayashi is holding back is detrimental to the film leaving a lasting impression on the audience. Even at 103 minutes the journey feels rushed and lacking in depth; the antagonists’ motives remain somewhat undefined beyond hubristic megalomania, with Mary, a plucky and likeable addition to the parade of Ghibli heroines, the lone fully fleshed out character.
As you might expect the presentation is the film’s strongest asset, a veritable visual delight of gloriously detailed and warmly rendered backgrounds of the rural locations, offset by the steampunk fantasy world the Endor College and in its curious denizens. The character designs are Ghibli to a tee, with slight adjustments to avoid looking like carbon copies.
Mary & The Witch’s Flower may be an adaptation of an original novel but the visual motifs from classic Ghibli films makes this something of a “Greatest Hits” remix when it has so much potential to make its own impact. Perhaps this was a deliberate homage by Ponoc to their masters, either way, there is still plenty to enjoy in this delightful romp which will satiate Ghibli fans in the interim wait for Miyazaki’s next work.
English Language 5.1
Japanese Language 2.0 w/ English Subtitles
Film Completion Press Conference
Theatrical Promotional Movie
Interview with the Filmmakers Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Additional Blu-ray Extras:
NTV Special – Creating Mary and The Witch’s Flower
A Special Conversation – Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura
Special Edition Steelbook:
4 Limited Edition Art Cards
Original dialogue script booklet
Rating – *** ½
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