TL;DR – A beautifully realised world that blends the magical and the real, and while it needed a bit more work structurally it was a joy to watch.
Score – 3.5 out of 5 stars
Post-Credit Scene – No
Back in 2014, there was one of those announcements that come up every now and again that rocked the cinematic community, Studio Ghibli was halting production after the notice that Hayao Miyazaki one of its founders was retiring. Now in the preceding years, Miyazaki has returned to Studio Ghibli, but with the studio being in a state of flux many of its animators struck out on their own and formed Studio Ponoc. Well, today we are taking a look at this new studio’s first feature film Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
So to set the scene, we open in on a large tree house, well more of a tree mansion, which is erupting in flames. Right from the start, you can tell that something is different as it is blue fire leaping up the side of the tree. A young redheaded girl is scampering across the outside of the buildings escaping both the flames and the people trying to put the blaze out as the musical score sores. Why is she hiding? Why is she Escaping? Did she cause the fire? Well before you get to ponder those questions the girl jumps on a magical broom and whisks away at the last second before she was caught, and after a quick aerial escape from flying squid thingies, she crashes into the ground after being caught in the shock wave from the exploding treehouse. Then out of a pouch, she was carrying fall these blue plant seeds which quickly cause the forest to grow uncontrollably around it trapping the magical broom under some vines. Bang, jump cut to today where a little girl Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill) has moved into the house of her great aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) in the English countryside. She has arrived early than her parents so she can start school at the start of the term. Well, one day after following a cat into the forest she stumbles across a blue flower and then the world changes.
This was probably one of the best opening scenes I have seen in quite a while as it does everything it needs to do. It sets up the world, shows there is conflict, let’s you in on the secret of the flowers, but also keeps up the mystery by not revealing its hand too soon. It is a narrative technique that is used to much success in previous Studio Ghibli films. Now, this seems like a good point in time to address that particular issue because I generally don’t like comparing two different studio’s work unless it is necessary to make those comparisons. For example, I think it is fair to compare and contrast different studios attempting the multi-movie franchise route like DC and Marvel. Now in this case I think it is fair to compare this film with Studio Ghibli because a lot of the talent that produced it came from the previous studio, and in both style and story it is very much a film similar to what the former studio produced, and as we go on we’ll see how that is both a good and bad thing.
In 2017 I wrote an article about The Beauty of Studio Ghibli (read here) where I broke it down into three categories, the story, art, and music, and I think this it is a good barometer for breaking down this film. So the first thing I want to talk about is the art because it is simply stunning. I have to say this film beautifully captures the English countryside with its gorgeous landscapes and the attention to detail. The gardens, the forests, it honestly made me want to visit my ancestral home. As well as this, the other realm has the beautiful oddness to it that is captured in the animations. Every movement is fluid, and I think the only time I got pulled out of it a little was in the unnatural good jumping that some of the animals had. There was fantastic creature creation, which even in its absurdity felt believable because of the attention to detail in the design and animation. To be perfectly honest, you could take some of those frames and display them in a gallery they were that good. As well as this, I loved the musical score by Takatsugu Muramatsu, it was quiet and contemplative when it needed to be and bombastic when it needed to be, and was a great way of delineating between the different worlds. It was one of the best musical scores I have heard in quite a while.
The final part of the trifecta is the story and this is where I think the film does not work as well, and because we are talking about the story there may be some [SPOILERS] ahead. In some respects, in their first film post-Ghibli, it was also the safest Ghibli film I have seen in quite a while. Stop me if you have heard this before, there exists a magical world just outside the perception of the real world that a young child stumbles into accidentally after moving across county to a new home. I just wish that they had reached for their own narrative vision, instead of retracing common ground. As well as this, structurally, the film has issues with pacing, it tries to pack so much into the film that it both feels like it was ½ an hour too long, but also that there was no depth to it. There are a lot of interesting concepts here like the blending of science and magic, or the magical world that exists in the clouds, or chase for immortality. However, the film touches on things so quickly it feels like it is asking a lot of question and then never has time to answer them. Like it alludes too throughout the film that there was something more to Flanagan (Ewen Bremner) but there is never any pay off for it. Add to this, I just never gelled with Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) as a character, so I never felt compelled to care when he was in peril, also I saw the English dub and well it did feel at times that the lip movements didn’t line up to the words at times. To be fair I have not read the source material The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, so I can’t tell you if some of these were issues in the original book or if they were due to the adaptation.
Now I might be sounding a bit critical here, but that is because this is a film that is coming from an amazing history that I do deeply care about and I very much want them to succeed and really come into their own. Even with some of the issues, it was a fantastic film with stunning visuals, and music, but it just needed some work on its story. So in the end, do we recommend Mary and the Witch’s Flower? Yes, and I can’t wait to see where Studio Ponoc goes next. Also protip: don’t mess with Cassowaries people, they will mess you up.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Mary and the Witch Flower
Directed by – Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Screenplay by – Riko Sakaguchi & Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Based on – The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
Music by – Takatsugu Muramatsu
Cinematography by – Toru Fukushi
Starring (Japanese cast) – Hana Sugisaki, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yūki Amami, Fumiyo Kohinata, Hikari Mitsushima, Jiro Sato, Kenichi Endō, Eriko Watanabe & Shinobu Otake
Starring (English cast) – Ruby Barnhill, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Teresa Gallagher, Ewen Bremner, Rasmus Hardiker, Morwenna Banks & Lynda Baron
Rating – Australia: PG; Canada: PG; Germany: na; New Zealand: PG; United Kingdom: na; United States: PG