In 2014 famed Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement and as a result Studio Ghibli, the company he co-founded in 1985, stated that they would momentarily halt all production. This prompted speculation that Ghibli was done and that after an incredible series of stunning movies, including My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, their doors would permanently close. Rather than sit idle Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and a number of key studio staff went off and started up Studio Ponoc and Mary and the Witch’s Flower is their first feature. This makes it of interest but any notions of Ponoc rising out of the ashes of Studio Ghibli have been killed off by the fact that Miyazaki has now come out of retirement and is working with Ghibli on a new feature due to come out in 2020. If you were uncharitable you may wonder if there was something more to this story, perhaps Nishimura was hoping for a promotion he didn’t get, but one way or another here we are with a new related but rival Tokyo animation company’s fledgling film.
I’d liked to have watched Mary and the Witch’s Flower with none of this in mind but even if I hadn’t I believe I’d have seen this as a slightly inferior version of Ghibli’s best work. The animation just isn’t as polished, the screenplay not as precise and in the case of the English dubbed version the voice work not as impassioned. Also, in the way the protagonist suddenly swings from joy to sweaty frustration as anime characters are known to do, I might also go as far to say that it is a little cliched.
Wait though, don’t go. The best of Ghibli sets a very high benchmark and just because Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t meet this standard doesn’t mean it still isn’t a million times better than the majority of other kids movies rolling into cinemas right now. It may not be as enchanting and thrilling as I’d hoped but it is still utterly, utterly charming. There is still wonderful imagination on show here and I’d take this over anything with a minion in it any single day of the week.
The film is based on English writer Mary Stewart’s 1971 book The Little Broomstick. In it said traditional sweeping tool whisks the young hero off into the sky and to the the halls of a renowned magic school. Any emergent powers preteen Mary has come from the plant of the film’s title and she has to use them when she discovers corruption at the heart of the institution. It is a more simple tale than some of Ghibli’s more surreal work and doesn’t have its parent studios ambition but there is no harm in starting small. Certainly it doesn’t compare to the wonder of Spirited Away or the spectacle of Howl’s Moving Castle, being instead more akin to Arrietty, with which this film shares a director in Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Arrietty is actually one of my favourite Ghibli movies though and like that film Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells another sweet and exciting story that proves highly inspirational for young red haired girls everywhere (one of which was my companion for this cinema trip and she loved it).
Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not showcase the best in contemporary Japanese animation (for that you should see the breathtaking Your Name which sets a very high bar indeed) but it is a treat nonetheless. Expectation may not have been my friend with this one but still I expect more good things of Studio Ponoc. They may currently have a borrowed reputation but they are on the way to earning a strong one of their own. I came out with both reservations and a recommendation so ignore me on the former and trust me on the latter. See it if you can.