Do you believe in magic in a young girl’s heart?
When it comes to my favorite style of animation whether Western or Eastern, nothing has ever been able to surpass Studio Ghibli ever since college. If you were to ask me why, it’s a combination of my preference for 2-D art combined with the high-quality production, very few animation shortcuts, and how it can capture the innocence of childhood whilst having storytelling that you can only really appreciate when you’re older. That said, I was fully in favor of Ghibli shutting down once it was made clear that the veterans were getting too old and the successors were more likely to give us more Steamboys if they were allowed free roam of what the studio made. Because nothing hurts a reputation more than outstaying your welcome – as pretty much every celebrity who’s been accused of sexual misconduct over the last few years can testify. Also, I’m very much aware of the importance of abandoning the old and embracing the new. It’s how I’ve continued to blog for as long as I have whilst many of my older colleagues have hung up their digital pens.
Having said that, I do want Studio Ponoc to be a good successor to the Ghibli name because I just love that animation style too much to see it suddenly disappear. Sure I could just move on to Sunao Katabuchi, but he doesn’t exactly make anime very often and I have no idea if the success of In This Corner of the World will change that. If you don’t know who Ponoc is, there’s a production company made up of former Ghibli employees, including Hiromasa Yonebayashi – the director of Secret World of Arrietty, When Marnie Was There, and the anime I’m reviewing right now, Mary and the Witch’s Flower. I didn’t pay much attention to them when their name reached my ears because of my usually justified “don’t revisit the past” stance on fiction, but when I saw the trailer for Mary, I just couldn’t help falling in love with what I was seeing.
The water effects. The flying scenes. The character designs. The overall sense of wonder. So when this movie finally came to the West, I was going into it with a sense of “hell yeah Ponoc, show me what you got. Ooh, you’re starting the movie off with an epic action scene? I can totally work with this. Man, I love when Ghibli does slice-of-life. It actually feels genuine rather than artificial like the broadcast stuff.” But even throwing Phos from Land of the Lustrous in as a guest star wouldn’t make me overlook how Mary and the Witch’s Flower comes off more like a direct-to-TV film with an unusually large budget. And I’ll be honest from the get-go, I prefer the actual direct-to-TV Ghibli film to Mary.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower centers on a young girl named Mary who suffers from very arbitrary issues that someone her age faces like her parents not being around as well, no friends to play with, and getting annoyed by the only male her age that lives in the large British town over. Don’t expect these issues to crop up all that much though, as the plot mostly centers on her following the local cat to a mysterious flower that can bestow upon her magical powers for a day when she crushes it in her hands. With said powers, Mary discovers a magical academy in the sky and catches the attention of its apparently only two teachers, who are impressed with her skills but soon become aware that they’re not as natural as they seem.
This leads into a magical adventure full of environmental themes, Hogwarts-like setpieces, and valuable life lessons that you’d pretty much expect from a Ghibli product, only they feel tacked onto the adventure rather than a core part of it in this movie. Additionally, I didn’t make that Hogwarts comparison lightly. I’ve been informed JK Rowling used the original novel that’s the basis for this movie as inspiration for Harry Potter, and boy does it show. Incidentally, I saw Mary and the Witch’s Flower with friends who really love the Harry Potter conventions, and they seemed to really appreciate the similarities; so if you’re a Harry Potter nerd, you might enjoy this film too.
You remember my criticisms for Devilman Crybaby and how the visuals were technically good but expected from the creator, while the story and characters were cut-and-paste? Well you could apply those same criticisms to Mary and the Witch’s Flower as well, only the sex is replaced with innocence and the obvious fact that this is a movie so it’s higher budget and tighter in focus. However, you’re still aware that this creator has done better in the past, so why on earth couldn’t you just be watching that instead? Okay, Arrietty and Marnie weren’t exactly classics, but they at least had characters who had semi-important problems that were vital to the story, and even Devilman Crybaby got to that level in the last two episodes. Mary and the Witch’s Flower just sort of comes and goes without much happening in-between.
The biggest problem right away is that Mary, unfortunately, does not have any sort of character arc other than being nicer to the local boy after initially getting annoyed with him – a story that could easily have been told in the same amount of time it takes to finish a Looney Tunes short, and hopefully with anvils to boot. Her adventures in the magical world are just there to give an exciting setting since Mary isn’t established as one of those heroines wanting something more in her life, and the big lesson by the film’s end basically boils down to “don’t fuck with nature or it will fuck you”. Said message is not very well-developed in The Witch’s Flower to begin with, and Mary barely has any side in that conflict other than being the person who uses the good side of nature to win for circumstantial reasons.
Unfortunately, the villains do not pick up the slack on their end either. One thing I love about Ghibli films is that with the exception of Castle in the Sky, all the bad guys are not actually villainous and come around to the good guy side by the end for believable reasons. Mary and the Witch’s Flower has two antagonists who come off like they’re Care Bears villains trying too hard to be relevant again with their out-of-nowhere fixation on making the Hogwarts’ students strong with no end goal beyond that. Maybe they just didn’t think it through, but you’d expect one of the other characters to ask them why embodying other wizards – and strangely not themselves – with the power of Krypton was a natural evolution for the wizarding world. Also, isn’t it convenient that the flower they need to carry out their plans never grew again after it was taken from them so many years ago?
So you’ve got a heroine without a journey and villains who don’t have much in terms of motivation. As such there’s no story, and thus I’m forced to rely on the technicals and humor to carry me for two hours, which you probably guessed is too much to ask for. Humor is fine and I laughed a few times, although the red monkey setup was pretty forced and we’re not exactly talking about a film that has twenty gags a minute here. The visuals are generally amazing, but I did notice one or two times when the walking animation looked like characters teleporting every half-second. Not to mention, they were depicting a lost of wasted potential so the magical nature of the film’s look started to turn into a hindrance before too long.
For example, when Mary first enters the magical world, she gets shown a tour of the facility with its various classes and recreational activities along with over a hundred other students practicing invisibility spells or working out like bodybuilders. Said students and activities are never seen again after the scene ends, and I know it was there for world-building, but what’s the point in that if we don’t spend much time in said world to begin with? Most of the film takes place outdoors or in a cave rather than inside Hogwarts itself, which just screams “missed opportunity” to me. Hope the artists who storyboarded those segments felt it was worth it.
Also, when there’s no story connecting the individual setpieces together, some of the elements that could potentially be charming just plain annoy me. Like the environmentalism. Similar to war stories, I hate when fiction just says a serious issue like saving the rain forest is bad without going into detail about why it’s bad and how there are multiple sides to the issue we have to explore even though we agree that we can’t choose the way of destruction. So when the innocent-looking animals are depicted as victims who end up helping the protagonists at crucial moments and the film ends with long shots of greenery for no real reason other than “nature wins”, I have to convince myself that James Cameron did it worse to keep myself into this. The pacing is also off at times too. It feels like the movie had more setpieces than it knew what to do with, causing it to rush through them so they’d all fit into the movie, which leads to conflicts and resolutions that just come and go with many of the plot devices being distractingly convenient.
Sure Ghibli has done a lot of weaker films throughout their run, but with the exception of Tales from Earthsea, even the weakest of their resume had unique lessons and well-developed character arcs (yes I am saying that Howl’s Moving Castle made sense, and anyone who disagrees with me is just plain wrong), and I’ve never really struggled to pay attention. I have no idea why Mary and the Witch’s Flower lacks those aspects, aside from maybe the producers wanting to start things off by trying too hard to mimic Miyazaki’s style and having it backfire on them. You see what I mean when I say that revisiting the past is rather ill-advised, especially for anime? If we keep trying to recapture what was once good rather than evolving over time, my new favorite anime of all-time wouldn’t exist, and the memes regarding “Haruhi S3 plz” will be a lot less funny.
Basically, what I’m saying is that you can’t just attach the most obvious aspects of a Ghibli film to any story and expect it to be a success. Also, you shouldn’t just pick any classic children’s book to turn into a movie – at least not unless you’re willing to take the sort of narrative risks and updates Spike Jonze did when he brought the Wild Things to the big screen. You need to have everything combine well into something I can describe clearly, and hopefully I’ll have a smile on my face when I give that description.
As is, the only way I can describe Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a pretender to the throne, not so dissimilar from what Don Bluth’s Anastasia was to the Disney Renaissance. Even though there is fun to be had, I’d highly advise against lavishing praise towards the film because it’s not something that resembles a forward direction for the creators. Hopefully Ponoc gets said direction in the future, but the ironic thing is that they need our money to continue making films, and if we give them money, they’ll think we want more movies on the quality of Mary. Goddamn Catch-22 situations! You ruin everything!
- For the record, if Peter said NEATO! out of nowhere, I would have flipped my shit.
- One wonders why you have an all-powerful magic cancelling spell to begin with.