This review was originally posted on Jan. 21, 2018. Mild spoilers ahead. Beware.
For just one night, a mysterious power is yours. What will you do? Those are the arc words of Studio Ponoc’s first movie.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Studio Ponoc’s debut film, was…perfectly nice. The animation, character designs, backgrounds, and food were all up to Ghibli standards. There was some nice humor and bits of drama.
And I never thought that I could have so many emotions regarding a little broomstick. But still the film fell flat.
It wasn’t as emotional or heartfelt as a whole, as the movie should have been. Especially since the film was created by people who used to produce Studio Ghibli films. The director of Mary and the Witch’s Flower is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. He also worked as a key animator or animation director on several of the studio’s other films.
So, you think he would have picked up on what makes Ghibli films so successful. Instead, the film comes off more like a smorgasbord of all the films Yonebashi has ever worked on. I went in expecting a Miyazaki movie and instead got an imitation of all the different things present in these films, but very little of the heart.
The film opens with a beautiful sequence where a mysterious red-headed girl steals a bag of seeds from a burning building. She escapes on a broomstick, but falls, dropping the seeds and forced to leave the broom behind. Time passes and a forest begins to grow around the items, ensuring they are forgotten.
Years later, the bushy, frizzy-haired Mary Smith has moved into to live with her Great Aunt Charlotte. She’s insecure and anxious as young people are, and extremely bored. And one day when forced out of the house, she finds the titular Witch’s Flower, known in-universe as the “Fly-By-Night.”
It’s a special flower that only blooms once every seven years. That same day, a cat named Gib goes missing. When searching for him the next day with the neighbor boy Peter, Mary finds the little broomstick which spirits her away to Endor College.
Because of her looks, mode of transportation, and more, Madame Mumblechook, the principal mistakes her for a new student. But this film isn’t about a little girl with no experience with magic trying to bumble her way through magic school, with teachers who should know better.
Instead, she admits the truth quickly and the film takes a more suspenseful term. Had this concept been introduced earlier in the film or, if the movie was longer, Mary needing to rescue Peter before her powers run out could have been a very engaging plot.
But it’s never given enough time to feel developed or to have real stakes.
Peter is a pretty flat character, and though his teasing-flirtiness with Mary is cute, there’s not much else going on in their relationship.
Madame Mumblechook and teacher Doctor Dee, who are the antagonists, could have been more developed. They had interesting motives that were never really expanded on and have done some terrible things, though what they want from the flower isn’t necessarily all that bad.
Mary isn’t conventionally “cute”: she has frizzy hair and bushy eyebrows which often isn’t present in female protagonists -but she’s still adorable. She reminds me a lot of Ponyo. Mumblechook on the other hand reminds me a lot of Yubaba from Spirited Away or the Witch of the Waste from Howl’s Moving Castle in many ways.
Endor College is absolutely beautiful and stunning. Its campus is on a floating island in the clouds. It reminds me of the floating island of Laputa. I wish we got more than just a “college tour” of the place though. It seems like a wasted opportunity -using it more like a set piece than a setting.
I think one of the biggest issues with the film is that it’s an adaptation of the novel, “The Little Broomstick.” It’s not a well-known book and not one I’ve read, so I don’t know what changes were made. The movie takes place in Scotland, but everything has a distinct Japanese flair that seems out of place with the setting.
It feels like some cultural nuances were missed.
One of the people who I was sitting next to during the film phrased it best; Mary and the Witch’s Flower played out more like a pilot episode for a television series than an actual full story.
A world and characters are introduced and there’s an adventure plus some interesting hints about a larger problem, but in the end there are just so many unanswered questions and so much left to explore that the whole thing feels unfinished.
The narrative should be able to exist without relying on people reading the novel or other material.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower, Yonebayashi said is designed to appeal to all children of all ages.
But I think gearing it towards a more specific demographic would have given the film a stronger identity, and allowed the audience to connect more with the characters.
Miyazaki’s films were almost always geared towards a specific age group, usually based on the age of its protagonists, which gave it a more defined identity: Ponyo was for kindergartners. Kiki’s Delivery Service was for young teens. This didn’t prevent them from appealing to other demographics, but their plots were based on issues girls of certain age groups face.
I won’t hold this against Studio Ponoc, nor does it mean I won’t see any of their other films. They need time to establish their own identity and I want to see where they can go.
And that’s the scoop!
Year of release: 2018 (USA)
Length: 103 minutes
Director: Hiromasa Yonebashi
Producer: Yoshiaki Nishimura
Screenplay: Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Based on: The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart