May 27, 2018

Mary and the Witch’s Flower: Review

Studio Ponoc, Japan, 2017, Japanese with subtitles
Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Summary: A pleasant children’s movie that may fail to satisfy AFOGs (adult fans of Ghibli).

A young witch with red hair rescues some magic seeds from a burning castle in the sky. She escapes on her broomstick, pursued by some sinister flying fish, but loses her magic and falls down into a wood. There the seeds grow into magical flowers, causing the trees around them to spring up into a towering forest, and concealing the broomstick among their creepers.
After this promisingly apocalyptic opening, the mood abruptly changes. We are still near the forest where the seeds fell, but many years later. Mary, a girl with unruly red hair, is staying with her great-aunt Charlotte for the summer. Charlotte lives with her ageing housekeeper in a stately brick home in the English countryside.

Mary is bored. While playing by herself, she stumbles across a boy called Peter from the local village. Peter mocks her red hair. Two cats belonging to Peter guide her through the forest, where she discovers the broomstick, as well as a flower, resembling an enhanced bluebell, which temporarily gives her magical powers. She flies on the broomstick to a wizarding school above the clouds called Endor College. Here she meets a formidable headmistress witch with purple hair, Madam Mumblechook, and a mad-scientist wizard, Dousterswivel. Having tricked Mary into giving them Peter’s address, they kidnap him and one of the cats, and demand the flower as a ransom. When Mary gives it to them, they kidnap her as well. She escapes, but decides to go back and save Peter. Meanwhile, with the aid of the flower, the villainous pair are attempting to transform Peter into a super-wizard in their laboratory. The experiment is a failure; the laboratory explodes; Mary rescues Peter; and they fly back home with the cats.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a loose adaptation of The Little Broomstick (1971) by English children’s author Mary Stewart. It is the first film by Studio Ponoc, founded in 2015 by Yoshiaki Nishimura, former film producer at the much-loved Studio Ghibli. Founded in 1985, and creator of anime classics such as Spirited Away, Grave of the Fireflies, and Totoro, Ghibli halted production in 2014 after the retirement of one of its founders, Hayao Miyazaki; another founder, Isao Takahata, died in April this year.

In the recorded pre-film interview before Mary, Nishimura revealed that he sees Studio Ponoc as the successor to Ghibli: the ‘next generation’ of Japanese anime. ‘Pono?’, a Croatian word, means ‘midnight’. It was chosen because Nishimura’s studio comes both at the end and at the beginning: at the end of Studio Ghibli, and at the beginning of a new phase in his artistic career. Like the new day that begins at midnight, Ponoc’s founders ‘had to start from zero’.
So how does Ponoc’s first production measure up to the best of Ghibli? To a critical eye, something of the magic has been spirited away.

The plot’s template is familiar from a hundred children’s books: child is bored in the holidays; meets another child; has adventures; returns to normal life. This is not an automatic non-starter – it worked for The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter – but, as with any well-used formula, the devil is in the detail. While Mary retains some of the imaginative details of Stewart’s novel, such as most of the characters’ names (the tame Doctor Dee has been substituted for Stewart’s more literary Dousterswivel), the visual details are Ponoc’s own, as is the interpretation of the story’s ‘message’.

In terms of the design, familiar Ghibli details, such as the heroine’s flight above layers of thick cloud, or the missile-grey flying fish that chase her, are incongruously interspersed with echoes of Disney cartoons and the film version of Harry Potter. When Mary flies into Endor College, for instance, a human-sized mouse scolds her for not parking her broom correctly. His green hat and cloak, broad girth and hearty demeanour are less reminiscent of Totoro than Robin Hood and Winnie-the-Pooh. Endor’s stone arches and double doors, on the other hand, could have been taken straight from Hogwarts. So could the impossibly tall atrium criss-crossed with staircases through which Mary is led on her ‘tour’, and Mumblechook’s eccentrically furnished study with its secret panel. There are some touches of Ghibliesque steam punk, such as a tower in Endor which looks like a giant oboe, and Dousterswivel’s robotic chair, but the candy-cane spires topping the college in the clouds are a shade too reminiscent of a Disney castle to stimulate the jaded imagination.

The message of the story, according to director Yonebayashi in the pre-film interview, is courage; ‘if you take one step, you might be able to save someone’, as Mary saves Peter. She is ‘a girl who stands up and keeps going … Everyone can cheer on Mary’. This moral is not particularly profound. At least, though, it is less didactically hammered home in Mary than in The Lion King, Toy Story, or Harry Potter.

For Ghibli aficionados, the most interesting aspect of Mary is the countryside backdrop. Ghibli productions are full of natural landscapes, lovingly observed and meticulously crafted – for instance, the Japanese mountains in The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013), also produced by Nishimura. In the same spirit, to design Mary, Nishimura and his colleagues, not content to rely on photographs, went all the way to rural England to go ‘landscape hunting’. ‘To go there and breathe the air and see the country is very important’, says Yonebayashi. ‘Especially the countryside, to see it with our own eyes’. And, of course, with their own artistic imagination.
The result is not so much the real English countryside, with its plastic waste and decrepit high streets, but a shimmering fairytale version of it, where everything is fresh, green and prosperous. In great-aunt Charlotte’s garden, the spring and summer flowers, diligently cultivated by her ageing gardener, are in luxuriant and indiscriminate bloom. Her beautiful old red brick house stands in the middle of verdant fields grazed by sleek cattle, with here and there a tidily ruined stone wall. The film itself ends with Mary and Peter pedalling along car-free lanes between blossoming hedgerows on their vintage bicycles. The overall effect is like an Eton mess: colourful and sweet, but cloying.

Mary may provide more effective escapism for those who do not have to step out into today’s England after the film – to a sky less rose-tinted than, as Erich Kästner once put it, ‘grey as the surface of a cycle track’. But from all of us in this once-green isle: please, Studio Ponoc, next time, either take us to a world of pure fantasy, or spice up your sugary idylls with a few drops of realism.

by Emma Park

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