In the wake of the tragic death of Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata and the almost-retirement of his legendary partner Hayao Miyazaki, Williamstown received a rejuvenating glimpse of the future of Japanese animation with Images’ weekend screenings of the debut film from Studio Ponoc, Mary and the Witch’s Flower.
Founded by former Ghibli lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, Ponoc tasked fellow Ghibli alum Hiromasa Yonebayashi (director of The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie was There) to helm its first feature, an adaptation of British author Mary Stewart’s children’s novel The Little Broomstick that was first released in July of 2017, with an English language version released in July of 2018. Images screened multiple matinees of the English dub and held one evening showing of the Japanese version, introduced by Professor of Comparative and Japanese Literature Christopher Bolton.
Like many Ghibli classics, Mary and the Witch’s Flower utilizes a premise in which a young girl living a mundane but pleasantly rustic childhood gets swept into a world of the supernatural, where she must rescue a young boy who gets inadvertently caught up in it with her.
Specifically, young heroine Mary Smith lives at the British estate of her great-aunt Charlotte, where her boredom is compounded by a clumsiness that prevents her from effectively helping people. She also is frustrated by her own lack of self-esteem, represented by her dislike for her wild red hair and her adjacent lack of friends; her neighbor Peter makes fun of her, and her closest bond is with Peter’s black cat Tib.
Things kick into fantastical high gear, though, when a journey into the woods after Tib and his missing mate Gib leads Mary to discover an old broomstick and a mysterious glowing flower, the Fly-By-Night, whose petals turn the broom into a flying machine that carries Mary to a magical establishment hidden in the clouds.
That establishment is revealed to be Endor College, a school for magical education that stylistically answers the question, “What if Yubaba’s bathhouse from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was also Hogwarts?” Richly realized with surrealist visuals (the first being she encounters is a mustachioed fox who teaches her proper broom care) and an intriguing angle that presents magic as merely another form of science that can be applied in a modern industrial fashion, the school is run by physically imposing but seemingly benevolent headmistress Madame Mumblechook and short, bearded head scientist Doctor Dee; both take an interest in Mary when the infusion of the Fly-By-Night gives her the powers of a magical prodigy.
Despite the school’s ominous warnings against imposters and the one-day time limit of each Fly-By-Night petal’s magic, Mary is so swept up by the praise she is receiving – she even learns that red hair is the rare sign of a prodigious witch – that she initially goes along with the illusion. When she is forced to reveal the truth in order to get home, however, the necessity of the Fly-By-Night for the headmistress’ and doctor’s schemes leads them to kidnap Peter as leverage. This forces Mary to employ her temporary magic to rescue him and stop the dangerous experiments that the flower will enable and in turn find her own heroism with or without magic.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its stunning visuals; the animation is masterful in its subtle depictions of the human world and even more so when it leaps off the screen to bring its surreal supernatural world to life with some of the most inventive visualizations of magic ever seen in the medium.
The characters are not quite as fleshed out as some of the iconic Ghibli protagonists, as Mary’s arc doesn’t have many layers to it and Peter doesn’t get much characterization beyond being the confident boy-next-door turned frazzled boy-in-distress. They are ably brought to life, though, with stellar voice acting; Mary is voiced with perfect childlike determination by Hana Sugisaki, and the headmistress and doctor are given intimidating authority by Yuki Amami and Fumiyo Kohinata, respectively. Also noteworthy is Shinobu Atake as Great-Aunt Charlotte, whose wise guardianship dovetails with a surprising backstory.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is slight in places, and its characters could have used more room to breathe, but the story they are caught up in is so wondrously imaginative and magically animated that it is immensely enjoyable nonetheless. If this solid effort is just the start for Studio Ponoc, then Studio Ghibli just might see its offshoot turn into a serious competitor.