NOTE: This is a review of the English dub of Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017), not because I have something against subtitles, but because it’s the only version playing at the IFC Center.
When former Studio Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2011)) tapped Oscar nominated boy-wonder Ghibli director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There (2015)) to direct the first feature for his new Studio Ponoc, he probably envisioned Mary and the Witch’s Flower as a proof-of-concept for Japanese animation in a future without Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a frightening notion; the influence of Miyazaki’s Ghibli on Japanese animation – and indeed animation around the world – is so pronounced it wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Walt Disney the American Miyazaki rather than the other way around. Miyazaki himself seems to resist stepping aside for the next generation, as he has ‘come out of retirement’ twice now to direct more movies for Ghibli. Nevertheless, producer Nishimura and writer/director Yonebayashi put their best feet forward sans Miyazaki with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, embracing wistful nostalgic elements that will inevitably evoke images of Ghibli films past, but also planting their flag as a decidedly more kid-tailored breed of animation.
After an action-packed “touch of destiny” (per Ethan) cold-open, we are introduced to Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill), a boisterous red-headed young girl with a generous attitude and a transparent desire for adventure. Mary is sent ahead of her parents to live with her Great Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) in a charming old house near the village of Radamor, somewhere in the British countryside. It’s refreshing to see a child protagonist who isn’t portrayed as A) a sullen lonely prodigy or B) a winsome brat. Mary isn’t shy about expressing her boredom, but she doesn’t whine unsympathetically either – she’s more like an actual kid, antsy yet well-mannered. Her kindness and eagerness to help out the villagers ingratiates us to her rather quickly, and her well-established thirst for adventure justifies any choices she makes that might seem too rash and impulsive. Soon enough Mary encounters all the familiar elements of the Hero’s Journey – complete with spirit-guide black cat Tib to thrust her upon her quest – and the story sets out upon a familiar path. There are certainly some twists along the way, some easier to see coming than others, but for the most part expect a beautifully animated children’s movie with clear motivations and an honest heart.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, the seminal twentieth century British novelist. As such, the film takes place in the British countryside and features a raft of Anglo-Saxon mythology and Celtic folklore from the surrounding isles. It’s incredibly interesting to see a Japanese perspective on Western fantasy, especially considering we are usually inundated with dumbass American films objectifying Eastern folklore. Unlike most of these, Mary and the Witch’s Flower makes an honest attempt to reach a confluence between the mythology of the British Isles and the familiar symbolic elements of Japanese fantasy. There are broomsticks and witches, yes, but there are also elemental spirits, dieselpunk tech, ‘familiars,’ and of course plenty of black cats – that one universal motif that seems to imply magic no matter the cultural context.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower includes some subversive story elements that distinguish it from formulaic kids’ fare, for good or ill. Self-motivated and heroic Mary anchors the film’s confident refutations of traditional gender roles. And while world-building plot-points – such as Endor College – are picked up and abandoned, threads that would normally be followed to shallow ends are forsaken in favor of meaningful story development and character growth. It is a decisive, lean movie, sometimes to a fault. Notably modern theming touches on the distrust of untested technology and the corruption of authority figures, and the film’s not-so-subtle screed against privatized education might fly over kids’ heads but it certainly rings true for anyone in the audience suffering through student loans. Also, there is a strangely Spielbergian theme at play in the film’s repeated insistence to not mess with divine powers beyond human understanding. To say more would be to give away one of the film’s best twists, but I’m surprised that Spielberg’s mid-career ideas about respecting the unknown and not playing God are firmly on display in a work of Japanese fantasy – usually famous for embracing the mystical as part of the everyday.
The animation is beautiful. While there are few shots with the ‘wow’ factor of Spirited Away (2001) or Ponyo (2008), there is consistency in style and texture that conjures up images of watercolors in landscapes and sketchings in characters. It’s the same type of loving design that makes Ghibli films iconic, and while I don’t know how much of a hand director Yonebayashi had in the actual animation, his earlier work as an animator on Howl’s certainly implies a level of tactile talent in the director’s chair. The style is decidedly less ‘dark’ than Miyazaki’s Ghibli-breed. The ‘monsters’ are not nearly as frightening as anything in Spirited Away, nor are they meant to be. While it would be disingenuous to say Spirited Away is not a children’s film, it is a film more universally approachable and more awe-inspiring to any age-demographic. Mary and the Witch’s Flower, however, sits firmly within a child’s wheelhouse, and easily digestible visuals make for a markedly less challenging kids’ movie. Side note: No animated food has ever looked as delicious as Ghibli-animated food. Not even Wimpy’s hamburgers.
You could assume there’s an opportunistic cash-grab behind Mary and the Witch’s Flower; Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1985) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) are thirty years-old, and even kids like me who grew up with them a decade later are fast-approaching parenting-age. Much like in Monsters University (2013), there is an element of nostalgia-advertising in Mary and the Witch’s Flower that is impossible to ignore. The deliberate callbacks to Kiki’s girl on a broomstick and to Nausicaa’s otherworldly woods – along with the obvious Spirited Away and Harry Potter allusions – are inadvertently if not consciously targeted at the younger Millennial generation that grew up on a steady diet of Ghibli. This goes double for any of these people old enough to take kids of their own to the movies. Yet, honestly, this is praise. Compelling visuals, well-written characters, a surprisingly subversive story and well-plotted pacing elevate this film far beyond childhood nostalgia bait. Even with a possible brand-marketing ulterior motive, Mary and the Witch’s Flower still stands on its own as starry-eyed Japanese fantasy for a new generation.
Calculated imagery aside, Studio Ponoc’s debut is splendid and stirs comforting feelings of wonder and joy, some of which are entirely independent of any evocative talismans from childhood.