(2017—Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“What’s done is done until it’s undone.” — The Incantation for “the Spell to Undo All Magic”
Potential spoilers below
It saddened the animation world in 2014 when Japan’s famous Studio Ghibli announced that it will go on an indefinite hiatus. This followed the announced retirement of the anime studio’s star director Hayao Miyazaki from a year earlier. Miyazaki, now nearing eighty years of age, had teased making such a move a few times before and the studio had announced in recent times that he has started storyboarding for a new feature project. Still, one can tell with little effort that the master animator’s years are numbered and that he only has one or two projects left in him.
Sensing this, several Ghibli employees—producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi chief among them—broke off during the hiatus in 2015 to form Studio Ponoc (Serbo-Croatian: “midnight”, to signify a new beginning). Nishimura and Yonebayashi had been among the paltry number of second generation Ghibli figures the studio had hoped to succeed aging founders Miyazaki, director Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki. For Studio Ponoc’s debut feature, Nishimura and director Yonebayashi (co-writing with Riko Sakaguchi) turned to The Little Broomstick, the 1971 children’s fantasy novel by British author Mary Stewart. With Mary & the Witch’s Flower, Yonebayashi succeeds in crafting a rousing and compact adventure, perfect for family audiences. Yet with easy comparisons to, not to mention the legacies of, the films of parent Studio Ghibli surrounding it, I struggle to deny that Yonebayashi’s film is a safe, perhaps even derivative, feature debut for Studio Ponoc and one which the studio ought to surpass with future productions.
Young Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki, dubbed by Ruby Barnhill) moves into the British countryside estate of her Great Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Ôtake, dubbed by Lynda Baron) ahead of her parents. With a week still remaining before school starts, Mary tries to remedy the relative boredom of her new home by assisting with chores, but her clumsiness holds her back, much to the amusement of local boy Peter (Ryûnosuke Kamiki, dubbed by Louis Ashbourne Serkis).
Mary soon encounters two stray cats who lead her into the nearby forest, where she comes across an old broomstick and the fabled “Fly-by-Night” flower. The flower grants her temporary magical powers, while the broomstick transports her above the clouds to the prestigious Endor School of Magic, run by headmistress Madam Mumblechook (Yūki Amami, dubbed by Kate Winslet) and the brilliant Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata, dubbed by Jim Broadbent). It does not take long, however, for Mary to suspect that the headmistress and doctor seek to claim the “Fly-by-Night” flower for themselves. When her actions lead them to kidnap Peter, Mary must return to the school to save Peter from whatever twisted experiments they have prepared for him.
Yonebayashi and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi script an uncomplicated fantasy with an untested but plucky female lead. Young Mary Smith carries the story and her clumsy tendencies, while not my favorite character trait, do not distract from the movie at hand and gives her something to overcome. I cannot say much on Hana Sugisaki’s voice performance, but I do recall Ruby Barnhill impressing me when she starred in director Steven Spielberg’s The BFG from 2016 and her confidence shows in her voice here. (By the way, I saw both the subtitled version and the English-dubbed version; both are worthwhile.) Winslet and Broadbent acquit themselves to their scheming antagonists, while I wish the film had more room for Jirô Satô/Ewen Bremner voicing the crusty, Hagrid-like Flanagan. Of course, the hand-drawn anime style reproduces the British countryside and the fantastical Endor College with peerless wonder and beauty, courtesy of the animation team lead by Takeshi Imamura.
Today, viewers of all ages have grown more familiar with magic in an academic setting, thanks largely to the success of the Harry Potter franchise. It disappoints, then, that audiences can only glimpse the many inner activities of Endor College or the abandoned but important island cottage that Mary happens upon later in the movie. It probably did not help that Mary Stewart’s original novel spanned just 192 pages, but seeing the potential for a fictional world on the big screen only generates an itch that Mary & the Witch’s Flower does not scratch. By far the movie’s weakest element is Peter, whom the story mostly treats as a dude in distress. He ends up standing in the shadows of more complex Ghibli males like Pazu from 1986’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky and Tombo from 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (the Ghibli witch-themed film many compare with Mary & the Witch’s Flower).
After 2010’s quiet but fabulous The Secret World of Arrietty and 2014’s Oscar-nominated When Marnie Was There, I would argue that Mary & the Witch’s Flower is Yonebayashi’s weakest outing to date. It is his most action-packed project for sure, but perhaps Yonebayashi had felt the pressures of viewers comparing it to Miyazaki as well as making a strong first impression for Studio Ponoc. These have constrained Yonebayashi to hold close to the Ghibli playbook, which is far from the worst guide to consult. Nevertheless, the future of standalone Japanese feature anime calls upon Studio Ponoc to forge its own narrative paths, separate from the Ghibli legacy. Ponoc and the rest of that small segment that focuses on standalone features in a mostly series-based anime industry must understand that the Miyazaki era is fading fast. Studio Ponoc has taken that first step with great care and it is up to other anime directors and studios to follow suit.
And with that, I conclude my reviews for individual 2017 releases. The next three weeks will see the release of my three end-of-year lists. First up…my top 10 films of 2017. See you all then!
(Parental Note: Mary & the Witch’s Flower has been rated PG by the MPAA “for some action and thematic elements”.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature-film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard is currently pursuing his M.A. in Biblical Theology (Catechetical track) at JPCatholic after graduating from the school in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting).
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.