Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
It was a few years into Studio Ghibli’s existence before Hayao Miyazaki brought My Neightbour Totoro to the world and finally settled on the iconic logo which become synonymous with the company ever since. Ghibli now rests in a state of semi-hibernation. In its wake, rising star Hiromasa Yonebayashi (Arrietty, When Marnie Was There) opens the gates on Studio Ponoc. Ponoc’s first feature is this one, and a logo has already been cemented featuring the titular character Mary. But can this opening salvo ignite similar longevity and fanaticism?
While such grand designs seem a little out of its grasp, there’s little denying the ambition put forward. Mary And The Witch’s Flower is, for Yonebayashi at the very least, a huge leap in scale, even if he manages to keep the running time commendably tight. This is a kinetic slice of fantasy anime, pacy and action-packed, with more than a few nods to Ghibli’s established set of classics.
Adapted from ‘The Little Broomstick’ by Mary Stewart, Yonebayashi’s third directorial effort begins with a bracing and impressive piece of breakneck spectacle; a prelude that mashes up imagery from both Laputa: Castle In The Sky and Spirited Away. We see a young witch abscond from a cloud fortress with the titular witch’s flower, only to crash to earth, her broomstick encased in the creepers of a tree.
Flash to some time later, and young Mary stays in the countryside with her elderly relatives (see roughly half of Ghibli), growing bored and restless as she waits for her parents. One day while out exploring in a nearby wood, she follows a pair of cats (Tib and Gib) to that same magical flower, which she casually plucks. Before she knows what’s happening, the witch’s broomstick is in her hands and she’s jetting off (against her will) to a school of magic that exists, ooh, somewhere over the rainbow.
But Hogwarts this ain’t. Endor Academy (fortunately not home to a bunch of chittering ewoks) is supervised by Madam Mumblechook along with her mad professor partner in crime Doctor Dee (all these twee names evidence the adaptation). These two put on the veneer of grace and naivety, making Mary believe she has been mistaken for a powerful witch. However, their true motives quickly become clear when Mary makes a return to the more ordinary world and discovers that boy-next-door Peter has been kidnapped.
Mary And The Witch’s Flower then zigzags back and forth between our world and Madam Mumblechook’s magic-infused fantasy land with barely a moment to spare for the viewer to catch a breath. Not that such respite is particularly required. The story beats remain simplistic enough for all ages to keep up, and if the to-ing and fro-ing becomes a little repetitive, its more than made up for by the film’s charming lead and her surly moggy.
It’s been a while since Studio Ghibli attempted anything so consistently geared toward adventure; their last few features (including Miyazaki’s previous swansong) played out at a gentler rhythm. Even the dear department Isao Takahata’s final film, the watercolour fantasy The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya, unfolded at a deliberate, leisurely tempo. By contrast Mary And The Witch’s Flower feels fizzy and energetic and, by extension, gives the mild impression of staying busy to keep the attention of a much younger audience.
In keeping with this sensation, this feels like a more child-orientated feature than either of Yonebayashi’s previous films. It’s slight and silly. Those things are fun, and the director and his talented crew of animators (still the best in the business) set to it with gusto. Mary features all sorts of blobby, globby creatures and, err, substances. But it has the weight of a nursery rhyme. Cute and lively, but that sense of substance and underlying wisdom that characterised the majority of Ghibli’s output feels diminished for this Ponoc debut.
Diminished, but not absent. Mary and Peter come to see first hand the results of meddling in the name of research, as Doctor Dee uses magics to transform animals into improbable and unusual amalgamations. It is here that Mary And The Witch’s Flower wades in the same waters as so many horror movie creature features of yore; warning of man’s meddlesome nature. The film can be read as a treaty against genetic engineering and animal testing.
While this element is present, its one of the few substantive conversations the film seems to be interested in starting. No, the order of the day here is primarily kid-friendly make belief and escapism, and on those terms it does excel. Mary is like Mae from My Neighbour Totoro with a few more years under her belt and a lightly shaded element of melancholy. She’d fit in just fine in any gallery of plucky young Japanese heroines, and as the figurehead for the fledgling Studio Ponoc, she’s more than fitting for now. That is, until someone or something more enduring and iconic surfaces.