Mary and the Witch's Flower review

Studio Ponoc's debut feature is a test case in taking the Ghibli house style into the wild.

Few Japanese animation studios can boast a house style as distinctive as Studio Ghibli's. It goes beyond just the character designs and colorful palette. Ghibli films have a certain manner to their animation: that syrupy flowing water with its oh-so-slightly elastic surface tension; those fat globular tears which crumble as they fall from a character's eyes; that frequently subjective gravity which seems to correspond more to a scene's mood than any known physics. It's in the loving detail afforded to food preparation scenes and animal movements. It's an appreciation for stillness.

Mary and the Witch's Flower is not a Studio Ghibli film, despite appearances. It does have a hell of a pedigree, though. The debut feature from Studio Ponoc, a new production studio which spun off from Ghibli when the industry giant announced it was suspending its in-house animation division in 2014, Mary and the Witch's Flower is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi and produced by Yoshiaki Nishimura, both Ghibli veterans with Oscar nominations to their names. It is intended to fill much the same aesthetic niche as Ghibli's films, a fact it wears on its sleeve -- Yonebayashi, speaking at the film's U.S. premiere in Los Angeles on October 21st, said that he "strongly believed the world still wanted Ghibli style films," and that he hoped Witch's Flower would meet those expectations.

To be sure, Witch's Flower serves up some strong animation, all of it close enough to the Ghibli house style that you could easily mistake it for that studio's work. There are a few fudged moments, most of them involving the film's four-legged characters: beautifully rendered, naturalistic animal movements are a staple of Ghibli movies, but they're tough for an animator to master, and unfortunately the studio shot itself in the foot a little having so many in its debut feature. Still, the flashier setpieces all hit their marks as they should, and that's what audiences will remember most. Magic spells swirl through the air; electricity crackles through roiling storm clouds; gelatinous bird-dolphin-things pursue enchanted broomsticks and the witches who ride them. If some of the story beats in the second half of the film fall a little flat, they're at least gorgeous to look at.

The most meaningful way in which Mary and the Witch's Flower parts ways with Ghibli, however, is the almost total lack of downbeats anywhere outside the first few minutes of the film. Ghibli films -- particularly the works of Hayao Miyazaki, who excelled at this -- love to linger in quiet scenes and long second act doldrums, where the character moments get to be subtler and more introspective. Not here. Our heroine Mary Smith takes very little time to work through her crisis of conscience before setting off to fix her past mistakes, the solutions for which end up being painfully straight-forward, rather than the seemingly intractible ethical dilemmas many Ghibli protagonists face.

Comparisons with Studio Ghibli's Kiki's Delivery Service are inevitable here. And perhaps unfair, but they do illustrate this tonal difference pretty effectively. Where Witch's Flower concerns a normal young girl who happens into magic powers, pretends to be a witch, and endangers others with her choices, Kiki is a born witch who loses her magic and must regain them in time to save someone. Mary is showered with praise for her apparent gifts and leans into the lie, bragging that her (plainly frightening) magic abilities account for only a fraction of her total power. Kiki, by contrast, has not even really recovered her powers by the time her friend's life is in danger, and so must push through her blockers through sheer force of will. Mary declares at the film's conclusion that the world doesn't need magic; Kiki continues to use magic to ply her trade, but she's matured, and her relationship to magic has changed.

It's easy to read Kiki's Delivery Service as a coming-of-age film, and to a large degree Mary and the Witch's Flower functions as one as well. What interests me, though, is that you can also interpret Kiki as a metaphor for creative block. Our heroine, who once flew her broom purely for fun, now has to use her magic to earn a living and help others; when those powers fail, she has the option of accepting this or pushing through and making them work. When Kiki flies in to save her friend at the end of the movie, you can tell her magic's just barely holding together, but she still has to do it. Kiki comes out of the experience with a steadier handle on her abilities and a more adjusted social life, albeit at the cost of some innocence (namely, she can no longer understand her magical companion Jiji).

Mary Smith in Mary and the Witch's Flower, on the other hand... Well, mostly she just seems to come away with the lesson that lying harms others and that meddling with forces beyond your ken is a generally bad idea. Which are fine enough morals for a children's film to impart, but they're a little simplistic after what we've come to expect out of Ghibli films.

Studio Ponoc is obviously under no obligation to exactly replicate its predecessor if it wants to go off in a different direction, either stylistically or thematically. When director Yonebayashi said at the U.S. premiere that there was still a place in the world for the kind of films for which Studio Ghibli is known, that could apply to any number of things, from the animation style to the stories it chooses to tell. It doesn't need moments of quiet contemplation if it decides that sprinting from action setpiece to action setpiece is what it wants to do. Mary and the Witch's Flower certainly does seem to follow a more conventional, Western plot structure and cadence than many Ghibli works, and maybe that will be in its favor when selling the film abroad.

Mary and the Witch's Flower is expected to see a general release in early 2018, in both English dubbed and the original Japanese with English subtitles. (The U.S. premiere screening was dubbed, and it was... fine. Jim Broadbent was the best part.) If it winds up playing in your area, I do recommend giving it a look. My above misgivings aside, it's still a solidly-delivered work of feature animation from a proven creative team and a promising new studio. That's more than enough to merit some attention.

Verdict: Yes