Review: Mary and the Witch's Flower (2017)


Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not be the work of Studio Ghibli, which has put new productions on hold for the past four years, but it bears many of the characteristics of that famed Japanese studio. This is all deliberate. As the first film of Studio Ponoc, which was formed when Yonebayashi and other Studio Ghibli veterans left Ghibli to start their own company, Mary and the Witch’s Flower has the tall order of demonstrating that Ghibli’s legacy of childhood fables and fantastical animations lives on in a new form. Since Ponoc exists so clearly in the shadow of Ghibli, it’s natural to judge Mary and the Witch’s Flower by how it compares to previous Ghibli works, and if that’s the measure, then the film is a resounding success. It captures the sort of adventure, imagination, and formal beauty that we expect of Ghibli, proving that you don’t need to see the Totoro title card before a film to expect greatness in animation.

Based on a children’s novel by Mary Stewart, Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows British schoolgirl Mary (Ruby Barnhill), who moves to the country to stay with her Great Aunt Charlotte in the days before school begins. While waiting for her parents and the school year to arrive, Mary grows bored, whiling away the time by complaining about her boredom and trying to help with chores she’s ill-equipped to handle. One day, she spots a black cat during a picnic and follows it into the forest, only to discover a broomstick and a radiating blue flower growing in the midst of some dead trees. She takes the broomstick and plucks the flower, unleashing its power and finding herself imbued with the powers of witchcraft and whisked away to a magical school for witches and warlocks.

Due to the film’s British setting and focus on witchcraft and schooling, you’d think the obvious connection point here would be Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, but Stewart’s book precedes J.K. Rowling’s. As well, Yonebayashi and company aren’t interested in Mary and the Witch’s Flower as a school story or a more fanciful version of the Harry Potter stories. Instead, the narrative shifts its focus to notions of power as Mary meets Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), who run the school and have grand ambitions for their magical students. As the film empowers Mary with magical abilities, it also focuses on the dangers of power and ambition, showing how Mumblechook and Dee are blinded by their pride and eager to compromise their morals in order to achieve their lofty goals.

The broad strokes of this plot may sound familiar to fans of Studio Ghibli—plucky young girl finds herself in a magical world and overcomes adversity through her inner strength. Much of the imagery in Mary and the Witch’s Flower will also seem familiar. Yonebayasahi draws on the common iconography of Ghibli films, from Mary on the broomstick with the black cat Tib perched in her lap resembling Kiki and Jiji in Kiki’s Delivery Service to strange blob monsters resembling the henchmen of the Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle or even No Face in Spirited Away.

You could accuse Studio Ponoc of borrowing too heavily from Ghibli’s past works, but much of the challenge of Ponoc is showing that the beauty and imagination that people associate with Ghibli is alive and well after four years of no new feature films (The Red Turtle was a co-production with a Dutch filmmaker and Ghibli did not do animation work on it). Beyond that, it’s not as if Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t succeed in its own right. Aside from callbacks to past Ghibli films, the detailed animation designs are gorgeous, especially in their focus on water and vegetation. The style is reminiscent of Ghibli’s, with rounded lines and lush watercolour backgrounds, but there’s also more energy in the character movements here. Like Ghibli, Ponoc’s animation stands apart from most anime with its soft designs and complete lack of pop-culture references. As well, the story draws out themes about the danger of forbidden knowledge and the responsibility of power that have definite echoes of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels (retroactively making up for the absence of those themes in Ghibli’s own production of Le Guin’s work, Tales from Earthsea).

If you were charmed by the adventures of Kiki and Chihiro and Mei and Satsuki in the films of Studio Ghibli, the adventure of Mary and the cat Tib will delight you. Perhaps the film lacks the iconic power of Ghibli’s defining works, but as an extension of Ghibli’s magic and an introduction to a new studio of young animators, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is exceptional. A world without Studio Ghibli as an active player will at least have Studio Ponoc to rely on.

8 out of 10

Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017, Japan)

Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi; written by Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart; starring Ruby Barnhill, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent, Ewen Bremner.