Mary Smith is a spirited girl who has just moved in with her great aunt in the countryside and has nothing to do until she starts school at the end of summer. When she encounters some strange flowers and a magical broom in the woods, she stumbles upon a magical world she never could have dreamed of.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature length film by Studio Ponoc, a company founded by former Studio Ghibli lead producer, Yoshiaki Nishimura. So did it live up to the infamous Ghibli standard?
Let’s start with our titular character, Mary. Is she interesting and fun to watch? On the whole I would say yes. At first she doesn’t have any defining character traits beyond disliking her own unruly red hair, but it’s shown that she’s a kind and lively girl and it’s easy to want her to find the adventure she craves. When a local boy teases her about her hair she stands up for herself and it was the moment I really started to like her.
Mary’s feisty, fearless nature reminded me of all my favourite Ghibli heroines, but it didn’t feel like she was cut out of a formula which was really nice. Even when she gets on a broomstick it doesn’t feel like a Kiki moment, especially as Kiki was born into a witch family whereas Mary knows nothing about magic.
One thing I did struggle with was the structure of the story. Not being familiar with The Little Broomstick – the novel by Mary Stewart on which the film is based, I had no idea about any of the plot. When Mary arrives at the magical school though, I expected that she might spend some time there, maybe in lessons. I particularly thought that she would meet other pupils her own age, but she doesn’t interact with any of them – in fact, Peter, the local boy who teased her is the only character her own age that she interacts with in the entire film. Whilst this is no doubt a reflection of the film working within the constraints of the book it did mean that the movie took some time to get going as Mary doesn’t form a close bond with the adult characters she meets.
My preconceptions of the film were that it was going to be something very cutesy, and fluffy and generally child-friendly. Whilst it’s certainly as wholesome as you’d expect from a Ghibli successor studio, I was really impressed with the grandeur and intricacy devoted to the setting, with creatures and sequences worthy of the Ghibli greats such as Nausica and Princess Mononoke. Studio Ponoc fill this film with Ghibli type moments big and small, but they blend seamlessly into the film, and although some feel more like a tribute or nod to previous films than others, none of them ever feel derivative or like a lazy attempt to emulate Ghibli and the film achieves a broader appeal than just children with the inclusion of these moments.
I even underestimated Mary herself – in one climactic scene where it seems like all hope is lost for saving the day, I expected a deus ex machina moment that would save her, but in fact it is Mary herself who gets up and vows to carry on, a determination that in my book, earns her the status of a classic anime heroine.
As a British anime fan, one thing I really appreciated about this film was getting to see English countryside animated in the beautiful Japanese style. There’s something really special about getting to view the beautiful parts of your own country as rendered by another culture and Studio Ponoc did a wonderful job! That said, this film does lack standout animation moments that Ghibli movies are known for, other than the opening sequence there are no moments where the animation did something ambitious and breathtaking.
It would be wrong of me to finish this review without mentioning that this film also has a beautiful score. At a few points I was taken out of the scene by the music, not because it was distracting or overbearing but simply because I couldn’t help but notice how enchanting it was.
Although the pacing was for me a little messy and incoherent at times, Mary and the Witch’s Flower vastly exceeded my expectations and has earned a place in my Ghibli loving heart. If you missed the preview screening you can see it 18th May in UK cinemas and enjoy that wholesome Ghibli successor glow for yourself!