TL;DR – When Mary discovers a flower that gives her witch powers, she begins an adventure that will see her grow from shy sapling into a beautiful blossom.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is Studio Ponoc’s first feature film. From the movie poster, you would be forgiven for thinking this is a Studio Ghibli film. The art and style are similar, and Studio Ponoc happens to have been founded by Studio Ghibli lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura.
The film opens with a series of buildings, built atop a giant tree, on fire. A red-haired girl is trying to escape with a pouch that contains flower seeds. Her pursuers wear masks and use purple balloon-like weapons that look like they contain magic. She runs to the end of a tree limb and is trapped until a broom comes whipping by that she has summoned and jumps on. She flies away, but the masked pursuers transform into weird silver flying dolphins and chase her.
A devastating bluish explosion destroys the buildings and envelops the flying dolphins. The explosion’s shock wave causes our red-haired witch thief to fall unconscious. She topples off her broom, her red hair turning brown (as if to indicate she has lost her powers) and releases the pouch containing the seeds. They land in a forest and immediately activate causing plants and trees to grow at lightning speed, the foliage enveloping and hiding the broomstick.
We then meet Mary, who has come to visit her aunt in the countryside. Full of energy and always wanting to help, we discover she is a bit of a klutz and tends to break things. She tries to help with the gardening but ends up with a basket full of leaves dropping on her head. This happens in front of Peter, a local boy from the town, which causes significant embarrassment. Feeling somewhat useless and bored, she wanders to a spot overlooking the countryside and eats some lunch. There she is visited by a black cat and laments that she can relate to being viewed as ‘unlucky’.
She follows the cat and finds a glowing blue flower known as the ‘fly-by-night’ which bestows temporary witch powers and only appears once every seven years. Mary’s world then opens to unexpected adventure involving the discovery of a witch college run by Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee. But all is not what it seems. The Madam and Doctor have been seeking the ‘fly-by-night’ and wish to unlock its magic by transforming a human into an unlimited source of power.
Everything comes full circle as it is revealed that Mary’s aunt was the red-haired witch at the beginning who stole the ‘fly-by-night’ seeds from the Madam and Doctor. She wanted to stop the experiments on animals and humans concluding that the seeds were too powerful to be harnessed in such a way. When the Madam and Doctor kidnap Peter to use for their experiment, Mary is spurred into action to save him along with all the animals that have been transformed into strange and mystical beasts.
Visually, the film is a feast for the eyes. The attention to detail warrants repeat viewing. And the story is based on “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart. However, I can’t help but feel that Mary and the Witch’s Flower falls short.
It took some time for me to figure out while I felt this way. And then it dawned on me. Many of the of the story elements and the way they have been adapted in animated form comes from a range of Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli) films.
Mary’s interactions with flying a broomstick, and the broomstick itself displaying a personality is similar to Kiki’s Delivery Service, where the main character is a young witch who isn’t that great at flying a broomstick. Both Mary and Kiki have a black cat involved as their familiar, which is a common trope of witches. Further Mary is not initially enamoured by Peter and the same happens in Kiki’s Delivery Service between Kiki and the main male character, Tombo. However, as the story progresses Mary comes to like Peter and wants to save him from Madam Mumblechook’s clutches just as Kiki comes to like Tombo and rushes to save him (the climax involves Tombo holding on for dear life from a crashing airship, and Kiki is trying to use a broom to fly over and save him).
Then we have this discovery of a magical world which reminded a little of Spirited Away. The main character in that film, Chihiro, is also a young girl, who is awkward and lacks confidence, not dissimilar to Mary. There’s even a scene where Mary attempts to climb some stairs attached to a cliff face leading up to the college of magic, the stairs don’t have any railing so Mary clings for dear life against the cliff as she slowly makes her way up the stairs. A similar scene is in Spirited Away, where Chihiro has to descend a rickety wooden staircase attached to the side of a mountain with no railing.
And then there is a point where Mary doesn’t ride a broomstick and instead finds herself riding an elk among all these other animals that she has freed from magical transformation. This reminded me of Princess Mononoke, where the main male character, Ashitaka, rides Yakul, an elk mount.
Having not read “The Little Broomstick”, I am unsure what elements have been faithfully adapted from the book and what has come forth as story telling mechanisms by Studio Ponoc. But in the end, it felt like they had taken a bunch of different elements from Studio Ghibli films and mashed them together in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. What worked for Studio Ghibli will surely work for Sudio Ponoc too right?
Perhaps, if I had never seen any Studio Ghibli films, I would not judge Mary and the Witch’s Flower so harshly. As it is there was nothing fresh in Studio Ponoc’s debut feature film and the main character, Mary, lacked a certain level of depth. Hopefully, Studio Ponoc will dare to explore beyond their comfort zone in their next project.
6.5 out of 10