118: Mary and the Witch's Flower

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I’m sure when you are a director who has a few hit movies under his belt while working under one studio, it’s imposing and challenging when you decide to leave that studio to start your own. Which I am sure is the case with Hiromasa Yonebayashi when he left Studio Ghibli and founded Studio Ponoc. While his name might not be as big as Hayao Miyazaki or Mamoru Hosoda, you would recognize his directing work in two Studio Ghibli films, Arrietty, and the Oscar-nominated When Marnie Was There. It’s also tough that the studio itself is being called Studio Ghibli 2, even though I feel like with the uncertain future of Ghibli after Miyazaki and his son are done with their films, I am fine with Ponoc being Ghibli 2.0. Sure, I would like to see them branch out a bit more into their own identity, but for now, I’m simply happy that we are still getting unique Japanese-animated films that aren’t just high-school romance films. For now, let’s take a look at Ponoc’s first film, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Released last year and distributed by GKids, Mary and the Witch’s Flower gained a lot of hype during the period of time before Hayao Miyazaki decided to make one more movie. When it was finally released last month, critics and audience-goers gave it high praise as one of the best Japanese-animated films from 2017. Sadly, its award recognition has been less than stellar. I think they simply released it too late to get the hype going for it, and, well, award groups have a certain bias towards Japanese-animated films. So, does it deserve more love? Well, let’s see.

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The story follows a young red-headed girl named Mary, voiced by Ruby Barnhill. She recently moved to the countryside with her great aunt, while her parents are working. She doesn’t have any friends, and decides to explore a little. While exploring the forest, she runs into two cats that end up taking her deep into the forest, where she finds a magical blue plant. She takes it back, and finds out the plant gives her magical powers. After finding a real witch’s broom in the forest, she ends up taking off, and finding an academy for the magically inclined. She meets the principle of the school, voiced by Kate Winslet, and the professor, played by Jim Broadbent. Even though Mary is being praised for her magical skills, she ends up getting into a situation much bigger than what she thought.

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Let’s talk about the good stuff about Studio Ponoc’s first film. Since everyone at the studio used to work at Studio Ghibli, you would guess that the animation would be amazing. And, well, it is. It’s very top-notch animation with creative designs, fluid movements, and lush colors. The designs are memorable, and I love that it’s not just Harry Potter-looking. It’s its own spin that’s way more visually creative and entertaining to look at than typical fantasy settings. It’s a film that knows it’s animated, and takes advantage of having out-of-this-world visuals and fun designs. The music is also wonderful, and while it’s not Joe Hisashi, Takatsugu Muramatsu composes some amazing scores for this film. Then again, this is the same guy that did When Marnie Was There and Lu Over the Wall.

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I also enjoyed the characters. Mary was a well-rounded female lead that was not stuck with a “chosen one” plot, the side characters are likable, and like in a lot of Studio Ghibli films, the villains are not simply evil people. You learn about why they desire to go this route with the research of fusing magic and technology. It turns out to be more of misguided ambitions than “I want to take over the world”, like the villain from Castle in the Sky. They aren’t downright evil people, they wanted to make magic greater for the overall world, but lost their way while doing so. I love it when films do this, because it adds layers to the film and the overall story. 

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While I do think this is a generally fantastic first film from the studio, there are some flaws that I wish they wouldn’t have carried over from Studio Ghibli. While it’s perfectly fine to be more character-focused, it wouldn’t have hurt to have more action with the magic in the film. I mean, yes, it was never meant to be a Castle in the Sky-style action adventure, but with all this buildup of magic and spells, I would have liked to have seen more than the goopy spells. The ending also felt abrupt. Not From Up on Poppy Hill abrupt, but it wrapped up too quickly and was too clean. It made me wish it had a bit of Princess Mononoke’s ending, where the villains had a moment to sit back, look at nature, and realize that they have been wrong in what they were doing with their magic or something. It didn’t ruin the movie at all for me, but it felt like there could have been more, in terms of the last couple of minutes, but they couldn’t, due to time constraints.

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I know it has a few flaws, but I loved Mary and the Witch’s Flower. For a first-time film from a brand new studio, it hits it out of the park. Now, would I say it’s one of the best Ghibli alumni films? I would say it’s in the top 10. If you can somehow see this film, please do. If you can’t find a theater playing it, then go buy the DVD when it comes out. I know many, including myself, want to see the studio branch out of that shadow, but for now, I am super excited to see what they do in the future. Now then, I think it’s time to move on and talk about a more recent film with Aardman’s Early Man. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials