MARY AND THE WITCH’S FLOWER, the first film from Studio Ghibli successors Studio Ponoc looks stunning, but it does feel insubstantial. That’s not to say it’s bad, it’s just not really about much. I’m prepared to forgive a lot because I’m not the intended audience for this, but just because something is aimed younger doesn’t mean it can’t have layers.
Young Mary (Hana Sugisaki) escapes her life of monotony living with her great aunt in the country when she stumbles across a rare flower that bestows magical powers. Mistaken for a real witch she travels to Endor College where Madam Mumblechook (Yûki Mamami) and Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata) seem to be up to something besides teaching magic.
Whereas Miyazaki seemed equally preoccupied with conveying a childlike wonder and criticising what the modern world has become, Mary and WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE director Hiromasa Yonebayashi seems far more fascinated with the passage of time and how we view each other over decades. Both Marnie and Mary feature scenes of different generations of a family communicating across space and time, and these moments really connect.
A stunning dynamic chase scene to open aside, the initial stretch of the film is a little faltering and awkward, not helped by the fact that this is a very Japanese take on British culture. Studio Ghibli got away with it in ARRIETTY and HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE through lightness of touch and keeping time and place vague respectively, but Mary if anything over-emphasises its rural Englishness. It’s mannered and stale and touristy with villagers proudly tending their flower beds and making deliveries to each other along the winding country lanes by bicycle, but with quite jarring cross-cultural additions like traditional Japanese meal and tea-drinking etiquette only with Earl Grey and something with mashed potatoes.
It’s far more successful when Mary’s journey begins in earnest and there are some wonderfully orginal visuals in the Endor college sequences, from traveling Glinda-style by bubble via the trainee magic user’s physics-defying gym to Doctor Dee’s plethora of wheeled and spider-legged devices used to avoid having to walk himself. Obviously the time limit imposed by the titular magical plot device doesn’t allow for an extensive stay but it would have been nice to see Mary get to grips with witch college life a little before rushing off to save the day. We just have to make do with a short stop, a few sights and a fox-man broomstick stable hand dressed as Robin Hood.
Unusually, by the end of this particular magical adventure, very little has changed. Yes (spoiler?), the baddies are defeated and the world saved, but Mary doesn’t discover that the power was within her all along, it really was the magic plot device and when it goes so do her powers. Presumably, she just goes back to the boring life that she railed against at the beginning of her journey, only now with a new friend. As for why the evil-doers were doing what they were evil-doing, who knows?
I think that is the real problem with Mary and the Witch’s Flower: there are no real character arcs. Everyone starts and ends in exactly the same place. Aiming your story at kids is fine – many adults still appreciate animal mascots and comedy sidekicks as well – but that’s not to say this couldn’t have taken a bit more depth, some different shades in the writing. It’s a beautiful diversion though, something you can get lost in the pristine, detailed splendour of, even if it likely won’t stay with you long afterwards. It’s not Studio Ghibli, but it’s not a bad start at all for the fledgling studio with plenty to build on. SSP