Film Review: Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Japan, 2017) is a familiar yet dazzling adventure that will please Studio Ghibli fans

It’s that fantastic time of the year again! We have another Studio Ghi–Wait a minute! This isn’t a Studio Ghibli film! It is in fact, a Studio Ponoc film. In case you don’t know, Studio Ponoc is an animation studio that was founded in 2015 by people who used to work in Studio Ghibli. One of these people is Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of such Ghibli hits like The Secret Life of Arietty and When Marnie Was There.

Since the temporary halt in production in Studio Ghibli due to acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki‘s retirement back in 2014 (and later, his return), Studio Ponoc was born and Mary and the Witch’s Flower was declared as their first film project. Having been in production for two and a half years, the film was finally released, receiving acclaim from filmmakers like Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki.

And now we have the film up for release in English-speaking territories with an English dub, featuring voicework from Ruby Barnhill, Kate Winslet, Jim Broadbent and others. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the high Ghibli standards or will it succumb to being a Ghibli wannabe?

Mary Smith (Ruby Barnhill) is living with her great-aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) while her parents are on a business trip. It’s the last week of summer before school starts and Mary is bored because virtually all the local kids in the small British town of Redmanor are away on holiday. Desperate to do something to escape the boredom, she requests to do house chores but she fails at doing the simplest tasks and thinks low of her own self-worth.

One day, while eating lunch, she sees a black cat turn to a grey one, she readily follows it into the woods, where she finds a strange glowing blue flower. This, it turns out, is Fly-by-night, or the Witch’s Flower, an incredibly rare flower that blooms every seven years. When Mary takes a hold of the flower, it releases magical powers and leads her on a magical adventure that exceeds her wildest dreams.

The synopsis is quite vague but it is best to watch this film with very little prior knowledge of it. Does Mary and the Witch’s Flower live up to the standards of Studio Ghibli? It comes very close to it, but as a first entry for Studio Ponoc, it’s a huge success.

For a change of pace, let’s dwell on the negatives first, if you can call them that. The story is very familiar to casual audiences, since it is very reminiscent of the Harry Potter book, despite the fact the story is based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, a film that predates Harry Potter by about a quarter of a century. Where as the sci-fi angle of the film is quite reminiscent of Laputa: Castle in the Sky, with its terms of greed and lust for power and steampunk inspirations. Even the themes are reminiscent of Hayao Miyazaki tropes, like environmental messages such as animal testing, the wide-eyed heroine, the same sense of wonder and others things.

Not only that, what can bother Ghibli fans is that the visuals and animation are very reminiscent of prior Ghibli films to the point that it sometimes looks recycled. One of the villains has roughly the same face as Kamaji, the boiler operator in Spirited Away, while a slimy creature in the film is reminiscent of No-Face in Spirited Away. And there’s also Mary’s climb up a scary cliff-side staircase and her visit to a house surrounded by water both closely evoke Spirited Away.

There are all sorts of familiar Ghibli images in Mary and the Witch’s Flower, from a character that resembles fire that recalls Calcifer in Howl’s Moving Castle to Mary’s broom-riding adventures and a black cat familiar, reminiscent of Kiki’s Delivery Service. Hell, there’s even a monster/vehicle that is eerily similar to the one in Laputa: Castle in the Sky. So if you’re expecting something new and out of the box from Studio Ponoc, chances are you’re going to be a bit disappointed.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” seems to be the motto for this Mary and the Witch’s Flower but thankfully all of the parts add up to a magical and fun time. The animation, character designs and the playful musical score by Muramatsu Takatsugu (however familiar they are) are stunning to behold, perfectly bouncing from serenity, fantasy and whimsy with ease. The opening prologue, which involves a daring escape via broomstick from shape-shifting minions, is absolutely thrilling and electrifying and hints of the many great things to come.

The character of Mary is very well-developed as she discovers the self-confidence and independence she will need to rely on in adulthood, throughout the film. She starts off as doubtful, as she faces moments about starting at a new school and her frizzy red hair and in the middle of the film, she turns brash and cocky with her newfound powers but at the end, her change in character feels earned and satisfying, without an ounce of sentimentality or forced emotion. While I’ve never read the source material, I’m sure it the female empowerment element was instilled there and director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and co-writer Riko Sakaguchi (who last co-wrote the Studio Ghibli film The Tale of Princess Kaguya) honoured it for the film.

The other characters like Great-Aunt Charlotte and Peter all compliment the film but the standout villains like Madam Mumblechook and Doctor Dee are both entertainingly menacing and yet, are realistically recognizable by their actions and ambitions driven by greed and lust for power. In fact, their actions are so recognizable, the film acknowledges both science and magic together, much like the collaborations of the characters, in a way that is quite refreshing.

And let’s not forget the cast assembled for the English-language dub, which is very well done. Ruby Barnhill (who was great in Steven Spielberg‘s The BFG) is fantastic as Mary, as she expresses the growing confidence and inner turmoil of her character with ease, and even gets in on the Japanese mannerisms with aplomb. Kate Winslet does icy and posh really well as the villainess, Madam Mumblechook while Jim Broadbent is an over-the-top hoot as Doctor Dee, as he displays enthusiasm and liveliness that otherwise would’ve made a villain quite annoying.

Overall, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is basically a greatest hits album of Studio Ghibli tropes and elements, but it’s a very well-assembled one that proves if the formula ain’t broke, why bother fixing it? With astoundingly beautiful animation, a playful and lively musical score, an empowering heroine, fun and menacing villains and a fun story, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a great first entry for Studio Ponoc. Conjure up the next spell!

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Mary and the Witch’s Flower hits cinemas 18 January, 2018.