What We Liked (And Didn't Like) About Mary And The Witch's Flower

Image: Mary and the Witch's Flower / Studio Ponoc

Released nationally yesterday, Mary and the Witch's Flower is the first film from Studio Ponoc, a production house founded by Studio Ghibli alumni Yoshiaki Nishimura and Hiromasa Yonebayashi. So Amanda and Jackson sat down to enjoy the film, although they both walked away a tad disappointed.

Image: Mary and the Witch's Flower / Studio Ponoc

Jackson Ryan: The film is made by Studio Ponoc, founded by ex-Studio Ghibli talent, and is based on The Little Broomstick, a 1971 children’s book. It follows the titular Mary as she finds a Witch’s Flower in the forest by her house that grants her magic powers. These powers allow her to awaken an old broomstick, which whisks her off to a school for magic, in the clouds.

Along the way she makes friends with a couple of cats, an anthropomorphic fox that really loves broomsticks and Peter, a boy that lives in her neighbourhood that she totally doesn’t like all that much. I don’t want to give too much more away. Do you think that’s a fair summation, Amanda?

Image: Mary and the Witch's Flower / Studio Ponoc

Amanda Yeo: I think I'll leave the summary at that, for fear of spoilers. Though I will say I thought the fox was a corgi? It was a bit hard to tell considering he was wearing a hat.

The film had a very Ghibli-esque aesthetic – the same smooth animation and movement that is a delight to watch. It did seem a tad less fluid than what I’m accustomed to seeing from this aesthetic (moments where, were it a Ghibli film, I was sure her hair would bristle or a creature would ooze). But that subtle design choice didn’t detract from the startling similarities.

Like Howl's Moving Castle, Arrietty and Tales From Earthsea, Mary And The Witch's Flower is an anime based on an old English children's book. As such, I expected a Harry Potter-esque affair by way of Enid Blyton. Mary at boarding school, learning magic and dealing with academic rivalries, bullies, friends and feasts.

This isn’t what I got at all, and I was mildly disappointed. Mary doesn’t attend a class or make any friends at the school – she doesn’t even enrol. Though I think this was more a failure of marketing and my own expectations than anything else.

That isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy what I did get. A girl inadvertently discovering a magical world, masquerading as something she is not, and quickly getting in over her head – it’s a familiar but fun plot. But I could tell there was more to the story than was being conveyed. At times things seemed to skim along too quickly, lightly touching on ideas and characters and then moving on.

I’m sure these would have been explored more thoroughly in the book, and things are always lost when translated from page to film. But I never felt the weight that I wanted to feel. Problems seemed fairly easily resolved with no real consequence, and the pacing just seemed a tad off to me. How did you find it?

Image: Mary and the Witch's Flower / Studio Ponoc

Jackson: Oh man, I am questioning everything. The fox is a corgi? Who knew! Does that make more sense or less? Does it matter? Probably not.

I want to judge this film like a Studio Ghibli film but it clearly isn’t that and that might be its biggest problem. It’s like a Ghibli Baby – it inherits the DNA of Ghibli films but can’t quite work out what to do with it yet. Sure, it’s a beautiful thing that you look at and smile, but it still poops and you have to clean that up. Is this analogy working?

The Ghibli style has become so famous because it breathes so much life into the screen. This was definitely a Ghibli-lite experience, with some stunning set-pieces (the fire and explosions were fantastic) but the animals that appear in the second act all kind of blur into one.

But the Ghibli style only carries you so far. It’s the kind of film that is very easy to watch without really having much of a message. It conveys a young girl’s wonder and awe about the world she’s stepping into, but Mary never meets anyone in the movie’s two hours that you invest in.

It doesn’t say anything of note – perhaps there’s an argument about science and ethics to be made if you stretch – and the relationships that the film gets to work with don’t have long enough to establish themselves.

It’s a good point you make about moving from book to film, but yeah, it just doesn’t have the emotional pull that Ghibli films do. I think of Ponyo or Grave of the Fireflies and nearly break down. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is missing that core relationship. It just bounces from scene to scene, ready for the next adventure.

I need to remind myself it’s not a Studio Ghibli film. Perhaps I am being too harsh.

Am I being too harsh?

Image: Mary and the Witch's Flower / Studio Ponoc

Amanda: I was worried I was being too harsh as well! But if you’re being too harsh and I’m being too harsh, maybe neither of us is actually being too harsh.

There’s no way that Mary and the Witch’s Flower will be able to escape the Ghibli comparisons. And in comparison both the animation and the plot, while serviceable, don’t reach the same heights. But even were the film free from such context, it still doesn’t quite satisfy.

It just never feels as though the film actually starts. There’s constant setup, introducing characters, places and objects, but hardly any time is spent actually developing them. We just flit from one to the other. Even the most prominent relationship – that of Mary and Peter – was more presumed rather than shown.

I wouldn’t even consider them friends for the majority of the film, rather two people who happen to be thrown into strange circumstances together. The lack of that relationship really lets the film down. Without establishing that connection, Mary and The Witch’s Flower seemed more like a series of events than a coherent story. As you said, it’s missing that core.

As regards to a message, I think the film made pretty clear reference to science and ethics. But it was done in such a shallow way that I’m not sure you could gain any meaning from it. It’s just kind of ... there. “This is a thing that exists and it is bad.”

It was more set dressing than anything else. I’m not saying all films need to have some sort of big, overarching moral lesson. But you want a film to have weight, to have consequence. For people to care. At no point did I feel the stakes, nor was I concerned for the characters. I wasn’t given enough to grab onto or to make me care.

I think we feel harsh because, on paper, we should love this film. It has all the elements of an engaging story stunningly told. But somehow, they put together the ingredients for a chocolate cake and came out with a bran muffin. It just didn’t have much of a soul.

I feel like we should say something we enjoyed about it, just to balance things out. Um. The animation was nice. Man, I feel like I’m making this sound terrible. But there was just nothing terribly outstanding about it. Is there anything I’m missing?

Image: Mary and the Witch's Flower / Studio Ponoc

Jackson: Gross. Bran muffins. I mean, they have their place, but that place is The Bin.

Does that mean I think Mary deserves to be binned? Uh...

Maybe we are both being adequately harsh. I think we’re right here. I wanted you to have enjoyed it so then I could be like “well, that’s kind of crazy, Amanda, because...” but we’re on the same page and now I actually feel better about not really enjoying it that much.

I agree about the references to science and ethics but – it’s not even necessary here, in this film, with this angling. By that I mean, this a kid’s movie and once the (obvious) reveal comes regarding the Witch’s Flower, I was like “oh, that’s... all?”

The science and ethics discussions might as well not exist, because it’s less a discussion and more a black-and-white good vs evil argument.

You know what is good? The dub. The English dub definitely didn’t feel like they just herded the actors and said ‘read this please’. Jim Broadbent – who plays Archmaester Ebrose in Game of Thrones - was excellent as the kooky science man Doctor Dee and Kate Winslet is totally un-Kate Winslet as the headmistress of the magic school, Madam Mumblechook.

I usually H A T E dubs to the point of actively turning off the film, but I was totally cool with this one. What else ... uhhh. The cats certainly look cuddly. When they’re shaking from fear, I laughed a lot.

Final thoughts?

Image: Mary and the Witch's Flower / Studio Ponoc

Amanda: Mary and The Witch’s Flower isn’t bad, per se, but it isn’t great either. It’s a film that small children will enjoy the way they do all displays of bright colours and whimsy, while older viewers watch with one eye on the clock. Which is a shame, because it had the potential to be the kind of film that is loved by both children and adults. Instead, it joins the sad tradition of entertainment designed to distract rather than engage.

If you’re curious, you’re better off waiting for the home release and popping it on when your kids are bored rather than rushing to a cinema. Even though children might have fun, I don’t see anyone begging to have a Mary-themed birthday party any time soon.

Mary and the Witch's Flower is screening nationally at select theatres now.


    Saw it, and called it.
    Meanwhile someone in the comments section kept telling me how it's fine to directly lift a style and pass it off as something new. Even if he worked under miyazaki, he already lost a bunch of respect for just repackaging someone elses style on a bland story that represented nothing.

    And I don't say that as someone who enjoys putting down someone's first try at an independent feature film. I hate that it sucked, and I hated they this director didn't just do his own thing, in his own style and take a damn risk.

    Also please stop saying "the next miyazaki" the next studio ghibli", it's become my barometer for "unoriginal cash grab"

    That is disappointing. I wanted to see this from the first announcement, but then as we saw more about it and got a full trailer, it seemed very... Little Witch Academica which is not a bad thing, just not what I was expecting from this movie, and so my interest started to wane. I guess this review cements it for me, I will wait to see it when it hits Netflix or something.

    Hiromasa Yonebayashi did not “rip off” anyone’s style. Working with Hayao Miyazaki, as he said himself, he has been brought up using a certain style, which has now become his own style. Yonebayashi mentioned in an interview that although the style looks similar there are subtle differences in the way it is, for example a more 3D sort of effect, with new technology, while mainting the nostalgia of the 2D style. Miyazaki acknowledged the good work of Yonebayashi and Nishimura in the film. In my opinion it deserves much more respect than it has gotten. It has taken about 2 years for these men to finish this movie which they made from scratch for the first time, while building and running their own studio, (although Yonebayashi’s works have also been featured in Arrietty and When Marnie was there). This was their dream. They achieved it. It was anything but easy for them, they just had the opportunity of working with Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and many other important people of the Ghibli community. Don’t push them down because it looks “the same”. Appreciate their work that they worked hard to achieve. I believe Mary and the Witch’s Flower should be a huge success, but that is my opinion.

    I understand the negative points too.
    If you don’t like my opinion, don’t say anything, it won’t kill you, I promise<3

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