Monday, June 25, 2018

"Mary and the Witch's Flower" Borrows Some Magic

With Studio Ghibli having mostly ceased making feature films after Hayao Miyazaki's retirement in 2013, it looked like the end of one of the last major sources of traditionally animated features. However, some of the creative talent from Ghibli subsequently went off and formed Studio Ponoc, intent on continuing Ghibli's legacy. Their first film, "Mary and the Witch's Flower," is a children's fantasy film that often feels like a love letter to the work of Miyazaki.

Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki) is a little girl who has just relocated to a picturesque British village near the woods. She's come ahead of her parents, is staying with an elderly aunt, and school hasn't started yet, so Mary is bored. The only other child around is a boy named Peter (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who rubs Mary the wrong way. One day, she follows a black cat named Tib into the the woods, and discovers a special flower called the fly-by-night. The flower allows Mary to use magic, fly on a broomstick, and visit Endor College, a school for witches.

Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed the Ghibli features "Arrietty" and "When Marnie Was There," heads up the team of talented artists who do some stunning work here. The style and quality of the animation are indistinguishable from the later Ghibli films. Red-headed Mary looks like a cross between the heroines of "Ponyo" and "Arrietty." Endor College takes a lot from Laputa, the floating island from "Castle in the Sky." There's also a very obvious Ghibli witch, flying sequences, magical creatures, transformation scenes, ornate environments, and echoes of other Ghibli films everywhere you look. As you might guess from the plot summary, "Mary" often plays like a Ghibli "greatest hits" compilation.

To an extent, the film is very reassuring, as it proves beyond a doubt that it's possible to make a Studio Ghibli film without Studio Ghibli. "Mary" is a little weak in the story department, and leans a little too heavily on familiar elements, but I found it up to par with the Ghibli features aimed at younger children like "Ponyo" and "The Cat Returns." Yes, it's very derivative, and lacks a lot of the quieter, more thoughtful storytelling that characterizes Studio Ghibli's best work, but many of the later Ghibli features also have this problem. For Studio Ponoc's first outing, this is definitely a strong accomplishment that I hope they can build on the success of.

What worries me is if Studio Ponoc decides to only make films like "Mary" going forward, and keeps aping elements from Ghibli films to the same degree. I'm concerned that Yonebayashi's creative fingerprints are totally missing from the film, even though this is his third animated feature. One of the big problems that Ghibli had was its almost total domination by the Miyazaki films, to the point where audiences often treated them as one and the same. Younger talent had trouble establishing their own creative voices there. It would be a terrible shame if Studio Ponoc inherited the same problem.

However, it's worth reiterating that "Mary and the Witch's Flower" is only their first film, and it's enormously impressive that it's such a beautifully executed one. So much care and creativity are evident in every frame, and it's a treat to see traditional animation still being done at this level of quality. More character-driven scenes like Mary following the cats through the woods and her antics with the rambunctious broom were my favorites. The broom, who Mary refers to as "Little Broomstick," turns out to be the most memorable personality in the film, thanks to some charming animation.

I find it curious that "Mary" didn't get much attention during awards season, failing to secure an Oscar nomination in a very weak year for animated films. The Stateside release by GKIDS came and went without much fuss. I wonder if it's because Studio Ponoc is a new entity and didn't have the clout of Studio Ghibli, or if the film's obvious derivativeness worked against it. But as far as I'm concerned, they've proved themselves worth keeping an eye on. I hope Studio Ponoc is around for a long time and can eventually make films that no longer have to trade on their predecessor's reputation.

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