(Warning: The following post contains spoilers for Mary and The Witch’s Flower.)
When Hayao Miyazaki announced that he was retiring in 2013, animation fans everywhere feared the end of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation powerhouse he co-founded and responsible for timeless classics such as My Neighbour Totoro, Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away.
The fears were somewhat unfounded as the studio has been busy with other projects. These include Michaël Dudok de Wit’s Oscar-nominated The Red Turtle; the TV animated series, Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter, directed by Goro Miyazaki (Hayao’s son) for Amazon; and the much-anticipated Studio Ghibli’s Totoro-inspired theme park due for completion in 2020. Also, Miyazaki has since come out of retirement (for the third time) to work on Boro The Caterpillar, a short film designed for the #StudioGhibli Museum due out in 2019.
Of course, Ghibli fans still yearn for the day when they can enjoy a proper full-length feature from the studio, which brings us to Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The film is an enchanting #animated feature that has all the trademark characteristics of a Ghibli film – from lovable cherubic characters to the coming-of-age narrative, magical transformations to a stirring musical score.
That another Japanese #animation studio could produce a film so Ghibli-like was hardly surprising once you find out who the creative people behind it are. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the debut film of Studio Ponoc, founded by former Ghibli animator and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura (The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, When Marnie Was There) and directed by another ex-Ghibli animator and director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi, of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There fame.
Based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 children fantasy novel, The Little Broomstick, Mary and the Witch’s Flower tells the story of young red-haired Mary Smith who lives with her great-aunt Charlotte in the quaint British town of Redmanor. One day, she came across a mysterious flower known as Fly-by-night, or the Witch’s Flower, that blooms only once every seven years. Mary soon finds herself embarking on a wild adventure as eccentric characters try to seize the one-night-only witching powers that she received from the magical flower. Even as she cherishes the opportunity to escape from her mundane lifestyle, Mary also learns that with power comes the responsibility to save and protect those you love.
Ghibli fans will love Mary and the Witch’s Flower as it has all the qualities of a lush, magical Ghibli film. In fact, the film pays much homage to past Studio Ghibli classics as well as other popular fantasy films that fans of the genre would recognize in an instant. Here is a list of the major shout-outs:
Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)
With the mysterious flower enabling her to have the powers of a witch for one night, Mary’s broom-riding escapades, complete with a black cat as companion, is reminiscent of 1989’s Kiki’s Delivery Service which tells the story of a teenage witch.
Castle in the Sky (1986)
Her magical adventure sees Mary’s magic broomstick flying her into the clouds where the wizardry institution, Endor College, stands majestically aloft in the sky, reminding one of the titular castle in Studio Ghibli’s first feature film, 1986’s Castle in the Sky.
Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Endor College, the magical institution in the sky that Mary finds herself at, is basically a Hogwarts-like school that trains young witches and wizards, from potions making to levitation. The haughty headmistress, Madame Mumblechook, believes that Mary is a prodigy and that red-headed witches especially have the most power.
Spirited Away (2001)
The Studio Ghibli film that Mary and the Witch’s Flower paid the most homage to is the Oscar-winning Spirited Away. From Mary’s scary climb up a steep stairway by a cliff; to Doctor Dee, the headmistress’ sidekick who instantly brings to mind Kamaji, the many-armed, bespectacled boiler wizard; to the ferocious water-based monster (pictured above) that Madame Mumblechook transformed into which is not unlike the voracious No-Face.
Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)
Mary’s friend from the village, Peter, who finds himself getting involved in her fantastical adventure is very much in the mold of Howl’s apprentice Markl in 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle, while a dancing, talking flame recalls the bug-eyed flame Calcifer from the same film.
The Island of Dr Moreau (1996)
Warning: this section contains spoilers for the film.
Close to the end of the film, Mary and Peter discover that Endor College was conducting sinister experiments on animals of all kinds transforming them into monstrous creatures. The hair-raising scene in the hidden lab is like an animated version of those seen in the 1996 fantasy horror film, The Island of Dr Moreau, based on the novel by H.G. Wells.
Ghibli fans will have no problem falling in love with Studio Ponoc’s Mary and the Witch’s Flower. From its elements of fantasy and wonder, to the familiar arc of self-discovery. Besides the style of animation, by adapting The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Studio Ponoc also seem to have adopted Ghibli’s use of fantasy novels written by women authors. These include Eiko Kadono’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, Diana Wynne Jones’ Howl’s Moving Castle, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (made as Tales from Earthsea), Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (as Arrietty) and Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There.
In terms of originality, this film doesn’t exactly bowl you over with ground-breaking artistry as seen in the likes of Spirited Away or The Tale of the Princess Kaguya. However, for every animation fan who feared that the 30-year-old artistry of Studio Ghibli will soon come to an end, it’s great to know that there is another Japanese animation studio out there which can replicate Studio Ghibli’s trademark look and feels.
Catch Mary and the Witch’s Flower at an arthouse theatre. It will be available in the U.S. this January.