Mary and the Witch’s Flower technically isn’t a Studio Ghibli film — although you might be forgiven for thinking so. It’s done in the same animation style and has similar themes to past Ghibli projects, but it actually is a Studio Ponoc film — the company’s very first one.
Studio Ponoc was founded in 2015 by Yoshiaki Nishimura, a year after Ghibli mastermind Hayao Miyazaki announced he was retiring. Following that announcement, general manager Toshio Suzuki said that Ghibli would be taking a brief pause as they figure out how to restructure the company.
Instead of waiting around for the changes, Nishimura and a handful of other Ghibli alumni decided to leave and start their own company. They went all hands on deck with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, hoping to prove that they had the same story-telling capabilities as Miyazaki did.
The results? A good effort that just doesn’t quite get there.
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There), Mary and the Witch’s Flower follows Mary (voiced by Ruby Barnhill in the English dub, which was the only version playing near me) — a young girl who has been sent to live with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) in the countryside.
Great-Aunt Charlotte is nice enough, but Mary is immediately bored the moment she arrives. School doesn’t start for another week, meaning there’ll be no one else around Mary’s age that she can hang out with until that time. Well, there is one boy — Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis) — but doesn’t think the two have much in common and isn’t willing to pursue that thread.
So, in an attempt to not die of boredom and stay out of the way of all the adults, Mary takes a walk into the nearby woods on one foggy afternoon, only to make a strange discovery: a flower. Not just any old flower, mind you, but a blue one with a strange, ambient glow. Curious, Mary picks it and continues on her way.
But, as you may have guessed from the title of this movie, there’s much more to this flower that meets the eye. It’s a witch’s flower — a very rare flower that has the ability to give people the gift of magic.
Mary finds herself accidentally accessing these powers. After inadvertently stumbling upon an old broomstick, she’s (and a cat she’s befriended named Tib) suddenly whisked away to a far-off land that’s high above the clouds.
There, she stumbles across a university for witches and warlocks (sound like any other young adult franchise that you’ve heard of?) Run by a stern woman named Miss Banks (Kate Winslet) and her right-hand-man Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), Mary is offered enrollment due to the fact that everyone seems to think she’s an incredibly powerful young witch.
Mary, however, knows that this might not be true. All she did was pick a flower, after all. Yet, she begins to explore the school and makes some discoveries of her own. After a while, she realizes that this place might not be everything that it’s cracked up to be. There are secrets behind these walls — secrets that she begins to uncover and is then forced to react to.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a noble effort by everyone involved and does a good number of things right. The animation style, emulating something like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, is once again beautiful in format. It’s accompanied by an incredible musical score and a lot of creative world-building that’s tons of fun to look at.
There’s also an emphasis on character in Mary and the Witch’s Character, most specifically on the character of Mary, that winds up serving the film a few favors. Despite the fact that the final line of dialogue seems to undo a few things, Mary’s journey of initially being a fish-out-of-water only to become a badass heroine of her own is a compelling arc. It’s not handled perfectly, but the fact that Mary takes charge and isn’t reduced to a damsel in distress (the movie purposefully plays on these tropes, as she’s the one rescuing a helpless Peter during the climax) is praise-worthy.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower, however, isn’t nearly as smooth of a ride as it could and should have been. Despite an incredible flashback opening scene (which, honestly, I think could have made for a better story than this one), the film moves at a monotonous pace. It takes Mary a whole fifteen minutes to reach the inciting incident, making this runtime feel far too drawn-out.
The movie begins to pick-up when we arrive at this magical school even though, as you’ve surely picked up on by now, it’s clearly a Harry Potter knock-off. While there are a few interesting ideas Mary and the Witch’s Flower brings in these moments, there’s not really enough there to set it apart from Harry Potter, making it feel like a watered down and less immersive world to that of J.K. Rowling’s.
The second half of Mary and the Witch’s Flower begins to move in a different direction, which is when things really start to get moving. There are problems in this second half as well (really unclear motivation from the villains, and ‘the hero being at an all-time low’ trope done a few too many times), but this is when the movie feels the most different from anything we’ve seen before and the most fun.
I look at something like last year’s The Red Turtle (which, coincidentally enough, came straight from Ghibli) and think of it as a movie that’s able to stand-out in the genre. It was unique, simple, beautiful and touching — a film that nearly anyone could watch and enjoy. Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t able to reach that level, despite the fact that it had every opportunity in the world to be. It certainly isn’t a bad movie, and anime fans will likely eat this one up, but Studio Ponoc’s first outing just can’t quite live up to the properties that came before it.
Check out the trailer for Mary and the Witch’s Flower here and let us know what you thought of the movie in the comments below!
'Harry Potter' meets Ghibli: 'Mary and the Witch’s Flower' review6