A lot of brilliant animators and creators have emerged from the Studio Ghibli workshop, but very few have attempted to capture the magic of Ghibli or make it their own as much as producer Yoshiaki Nishimura. Founder of Studio Ponoc, a contemporary to Studio Ghibli, Nishimura took several members from the Ghibli arthouse and launched their first of many animated movies to come, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Originally released in Japan in 2017, the film tells the story of a young girl who finds a flower that grants her magical powers for one night and the chaos the blooming of said flowers brings to the magical world. While visually beautiful and definitely invoking that old hand drawn Ghibli wonder, it falls short of being truly original however, with a choppy plot full of half-answered questions.
The movie is exactly what would you expect from a former Ghibli worker. As the title implies, it stars Mary, a red-headed newcomer who can’t do anything right, who lives with her great aunt in an inexplicably large house in the British countryside. One day, eager to explore the surrounding area, she meets a couple of cats who take her to a magical flower called a Fly-By-Night; one, when squished between the palms of her hands, grants her magical powers. Before she knows it, she is smack dab in the middle of an adventure: an old broom arrives and takes her to a place called Endor College, a secret school of magic. But, when knowledge of the Fly-By-Night reaches the ears of those with nefarious purposes, her magic isn’t the only thing that’s going to need protection.
The plot for Mary and the Witch’s Flower is not especially original, especially when the source of the script is the same as many other Ghibli-esque works: mid-70s British kids’ lit. Personally, I adore this very specific genre – one where children run wild in flowery fields and lick toads for magic power while tripping through a world of talking rocks – so it did feed my childlike excitement to see some over-the-top creatures here. I love the idea of a flower that gives a person magical abilities and that, just beyond the veil, a world of fantasy and wonder exists. Unfortunately, the script falls short of any real immersion and it seems to miss some wonderful opportunities to provide answers. Perhaps the strangest part of this story is the Endor College of Magic, which seems to be the only magical setting that she visits. The school itself doesn’t belong to any village or similar, instead simply floating solo in the sky, which takes something away from the wonderment of being in a magical world. Everything is contained and made obvious, instead of letting Mary find it for herself: this dilutes the real magic of the work, her exploration of the world. In the end, it’s less about ‘the Witches’ and more about ‘Mary.’ Also, there are plot holes in the story (ones that would give away the plot if I mentioned them) that don’t necessarily need to be there, and would’ve had an easy fix if the writers didn’t pick the first draft that came to their heads. The movie seems like it lacks a fine polish and is more focused on the visuals than being really script-driven.
But, of course, coming from Ghibli alumni, the animation and visual shots are pretty damn spectacular. Everything is there! The bubbling magical creatures, the robotic-slash-organic servants, the flappy hair that seems to have a life of its own. The animators put in wonderful little surprises, like the little blue firework show that bubbles forth from the Fly-By-Night when planted, or the sparks from the witch’s broom as Mary flies through the skies. The backgrounds are a panoramic wonderland which demand just as much attention as the moving characters on the screen. Believe me when I say it is a visual wonderland and very reminiscent of its Ghibli heritage – maybe a little too much at times. A lot of the character designs and movement almost seem lifted from other works, which is something that’ll either excite you or annoy you, depending on how much you love old Ghibli works. Either way, the animation is still pretty awesome and it’s fun to see a new Ghibli-inspired work grace the big screen.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is out in select theaters now.