Mary and the Witch’s Flower
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart
Voice work by Hana Sugisaki, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yūki Amami
Review by Jordan
“I can’t go home, not alone”
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a significant film; it’s boisterous animation and rousing sound design representative not only of a film style so constantly able to dazzle, but of a newly formed film studio born out of respect for the incomparable Studio Ghibli: Studio Ponoc.
Directed by Ghibli protégé Hiromasa Yonebayashi, whose work as key animator on landmark Hayao Miyazaki films Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Caste preceded his achievements in directing The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) and the exceptional When Marnie Was There (2014), his most cinematic endeavour introduces a trademark premise of a curious, slightly ostracised young girl, unaware of her own courage, swept up in a fantastical adventure born of a seemingly ordinary source.
Indeed, as viewers of Japanese animation would know, ‘ordinary’ is an outcome and process often enthusiastically avoided.
The titular ‘Witch’s Flower’ is the beautiful and elusive Fly by Night, which grants it’s user magical powers for a night only. Having fallen from above the clouds in the past with a mysterious red-haired woman, when discovered by the frizzy-haired, particularly clumsy Mary, it reveals a world of equal astonishment and treachery, and sets her on a path of discovery.
Important as a showcase of the vision and talent employed at Studio Ponoc, it’s clear that Yonebayashi was wishing to weave a classic story with imaginative visuals and themes of identity and understanding, but although literally having the element of magic at his disposal, his creation presents less wonderment than the far more human When Marnie Was There. Best showcased by its rousing opening, the creative action can be vivid and engaging, but also surprisingly unsurprising, like the film is balancing freedom with narrative expectations.
A ‘Master Spells’ book is utilised for only one spell; the story requiring it to be used multiple times while the rest of the book is left untouched. This seems illustrative of Mary and the Witch’s Flower as a whole: obviously prominent, hugely promising, yet with all of its most alluring secrets unexplored. This is evident in the backstories of both the mysterious Red-Haired Witch and Madam Mumblechook, the Headmistress of famed school of magic Endor College, which are more thrilling than the current events, even though they remain underdeveloped in favour of Mary’s more conventional plight.
Ultimately, Studio Ponoc’s debut feature soars above the clouds on a broomstick in some respects, most notably the wonderful illustrations and enjoyment it will provide a younger audience, but sputters when the magic begins to fade on a journey so exciting in concept and in it’s best moments, but too frequently plateaus amidst floating islands of lesser splendour.