Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Distributor: Toho

Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Writers: Riko Sakaguchi & Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Starring (English Dub): Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Lynda Baron, Louis Ashbourne Serkis

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: PG

Hayao Miyazaki, co-founder of the Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, is arguably the most highly and widely respected animation director in the world at present.  When he announced his retirement for the umpteenth time after completing The Wind Rises in 2013, a number of veterans from Ghibli left and founded Studio Ponoc under the leadership of Yoshiaki Nishimura (director of The Tale of Princess Kaguya) to continue the legacy of Ghibli under a new banner.  They began this venture with the feature production of an adaptation of Mary Stewart’s children’s fantasy book The Little Broomstick. Certainly a fitting choice for Ponoc’s maiden voyage, but as Pixar has had to learn, a great pedigree and familiar territory is no guarantee of success.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Frequent peril and conflict. Potentially frightening scenes: kidnapping and imprisonment, allusions to experiments, transfiguration, torture. The movie starts with an all-consuming fire that people are trying to flee. Robot-like creatures restrain Mary. Peter and Mary nearly fall off a dangerous ledge trying to escape. Child characters are captured and knocked out. A scary scene when the headmistress’ magical goons pursue the kids. The headmistress can also control a magical liquid that can turn solid. Mary plunges to the ground on the little broom; it breaks, which makes her cry.

Language/Crude Humor: None.

Sexual Content: None.

Drug/Alcohol Use: None.

Spiritual Content: Depictions of fantasy magic.

Other Negative Themes: Depictions of children teasing.

Positive Content: Conveys messages about believing in yourself, helping others, being courageous and generous, and not letting others demean your self-worth.

Mary is kind, helpful, and brave. She refuses to leave Peter behind and summons her courage to face her fears. Peter is also brave, and both kids learn the value of friendship. Aunt Charlotte is loving and encouraging. Madam and Doctor Dee suffer consequences for their unethical experimentation.

 

Review

Thought experiment:

You’ve broken professional ties with one of the most consistently successful practitioners of animated filmmaking on the planet in response to said practitioner’s retirement. You’re fully aware that this professional is not particularly keen on what “retirement” means, so it may not behoove you to burn so many bridges in starting a new studio venture, but what the hey. You gather a great number of seasoned alumni from the previous studio to join you in the new frontier you’ve just founded and now you have to embark on a maiden voyage of a film production sailing under the shadow of your forefathers. What to do? Well, there are a few key principles to keep in mind.

Firstly, it would be sound reasoning to let the most recently successful director of the last studio arrangement to take the helm for this first outing. Also, it would be advisable to let the new director stick with what he knows and enjoys. So what’s the plan thus far? Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi heading an adaptation of Mary Stewart’s 1971 children’s fantasy book The Little Broomstick? Sounds promising enough, to be sure. Yonebayashi is the same one who handled the charmingly underrated Secret World of Arrietty and the emotional powerhouse that was When Marnie Was There, so he should be quite at home handling yet another adaptation of bucolic British literature.

What kind of premise are we working with here? It’s familiar, granted. We follow the adventures of an unassuming young redheaded girl named Mary (The BFG’s Ruby Barnhill) who, in terms of design, seems to be the missing link between the title characters of Ponyo and Arrietty. She’s been left by her parents to live with her great aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) for reasons not entirely clear, where she experiences social ostracizing from a remarkably empty village.

The local delivery boy Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) ridicules her lack of coordination and wildly disheveled red hair, but that’s about it. At one point when Mary is asked to deliver a note to Peter, Mary exasperatedly asks “of all the people in the village, why did it have to be him?”, I had to stop myself from asking, “What do you MEAN ‘all the people?’” out loud. But hey, spunky and adventurous female protagonists have been a staple of the Ghibli workshop since the beginning, so the necessary pieces are at least in place.

Mary’s rustic routine of feeling unwanted and irrelevant while wasting time doing exactly what she ought not to do according to her superiors is thrown on its head when she follows a strange black cat into the woods and comes across an even more strange glowing blue cluster of flowers. The estate gardener Zebedee (Rasmus Hardiker) lets Mary know that the mysterious blue bulbs are known as “fly-by-night” and are prized by witches for their dormant magical potential. It is here that the character of Mary is established as one of those insufferable child protagonists that repeats ad nauseam every new bit of information bequeathed to her back in the form of a question.

“That’s a fly-by-night, Mary.”

“A fly-by-night?”

“They’re coveted by witches.”

“Witches?”

“You should keep them on your mantle for decoration.”

“…A fly-by-night?”

This is only partially paraphrased. You get the picture.

A trip into the woods on a particularly foggy afternoon in search of the rather insouciant black cat brings Mary to a mysterious broom trapped in vines and a new discovery about the nature of the fly-by-nights. If Mary bursts one of the bulbs of the flower, it imbues the user with magical powers and the abilities of a witch. In this instance, the broom in the vines comes to life, and Mary holds on for dear life as it jettisons her into the clouds to a hidden metropolis in the sky. Another common feature of Miyazaki’s films is stories centered on average youths slipping into another angle of their world that is far stranger than they know. Flight is also a ubiquitous component in Miyazaki’s body of work. Again, the features are there, but they don’t deliver very well.

The sky-bound cityscape in question is soon revealed to actually be a massive university for the magically gifted run by a dubious headmistress that could be grouped along with a number of other overbearing all-consuming matriarchs in past Ghibli films. Granted, with the magical school of Endor College being operated by someone with a name like Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), I’m sure you can forgive me for expecting someone akin to a “Weasley” or a “Granger” to show up, dear reader.  The headmistress’s eccentric scientific colleague Doctor Dee (an obvious Jim Broadbent), operates as something of a diminutive Dr. Robotnik who may or may not be a distant relative to the spider-legged Kamaji from Spirited Away, so he fits the environment quite well.

What’s unfortunate is that while every element that does at least potentially make a successful film in the spirit of Miyazaki’s oeuvre is present and accounted for, what’s lacking is the ingenuity in how to utilize those elements in a compelling manner. It’s stated by the authorities and the highest ranking members of the college that because of the very unruly red hair that Mary hates so much, she is descended from one of the most magically prodigious lines of witches, but it’s never really clear if she actually is a magical prodigy, or if she just got lucky with the flowers. In fact, whether or not the flowers are giving the magic prowess that she didn’t have or awakening abilities that were lying dormant within her is another mystery never really resolved.

Either way, Mary herself really doesn’t seem terribly interested in this path of life any more than the film as a whole is. In fact, she seems to flit to and fro between scenes with little motivation other than to just keep the story moving. This is quite odd coming from a character who complained about how dull and uneventful her life was at the beginning of the story.

Of course, there is something remarkably sinister going on behind the locked doors of Endor College (which remarkably seems just as largely devoid of life as Mary’s home village), and sooner or later, Mary is going to have to awaken from her self-perpetuating ennui in order to save lives and such. Sadly, even the villains’ explicitly unscrupulous goals and motivations are never clearly defined. With all that said, the climax to Mary’s arc had so little justification from any angle I could observe and made so little sense, I had to check my hearing just to ensure that I perceived the film correctly. Calling it anti-climactic would be an understatement.

It can’t be said that Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a work without great value and merit. Studio Ghibli and its offshoots may very well be the last remaining major relics of traditional hand-drawn 2D animation in the world. On top of that, the production values are still remarkable. I was struck breathless when the special effects spewing from the fly-by-nights started enveloping the immediate scenery in a luminescent flurry of blues and sharp lights.  he backgrounds are just as lovingly crafted as anything we’ve come to expect from these masters of the discipline, ranging from the awe-inspiringly fantastical to the palpably rustic. It could be said the biggest problem holding this film back from greatness is not that it’s unfamiliar, but rather that it’s too familiar.  It pays superficial homage to the original but does little in the way of being original (or even that remarkable) itself.

I have every good faith that this won’t be the last we’ll see of Studio Pono–or the best. I adored the last two films from Yonebayashi alone, and it’s clear that he’s eager to get started on something greater very soon. Who knows what other endeavors this fresh and eager team will undertake in the coming years? With all the experience and mentorship at the ready, there’s a remarkably high chance that they could at least continue the lifespan of this medium, if not usher in a new Renaissance. Their first venture under this new banner may not be the best that we could expect from them (and there are rumors that the great Miyazaki himself may be flouting the terms of his retirement at Ghibli again), but this campaign is far from over.

Positives

+ Visually impressive + Resembles the greatness of its predecessors

Negatives

- Unclear character motivations - Empty settings - Disappointing ending

The Bottom Line

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, but how much greater the tree is to the apple. At least at first…

 

7.2

Tyrone Barnes

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