Stray Thoughts: Mary and the Witch’s Flower

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Note: this post contains some minor spoilers for the plot of Mary and the Witch’s Flower. Read at your own risk!

Welcome back! Yesterday, I had the pleasure of seeing Mary and the Witch’s Flower. What I expected to be a lowkey affair (I had intended to see this closer to my home at the Thursday night premiere event, but a last-minute, 5-hour meeting at work prevented that) ended up being a mini-adventure (after the premiere event, I discovered that the only theater screening the film in my state was over an hour away), and after seeing the film, I felt it was worth writing about. This is not meant to be a big review; I just want to write some thoughts down and share with you all!

Overall, I thought the film was good! It’s a visual marvel, with lots of lush, incredible backgrounds, and lively character designs, coupled with dazzling visual effects. Though it takes place in drastically different environments (starting in the English countryside and moving to a magic school in the sky), it all felt part of one cohesive world. The overall cast is likable and fun. I empathized with Mary’s internal conflict of feeling unable to contribute. On an aesthetic level, it’s very transportive, and I was thoroughly engaged throughout the entire film as a result. If you’re able to see this film on the big screen, the visuals alone are worth the price of admission.

If I had to say, the biggest issue with the film is its screenplay. It’s nowhere near bad, by any stretch; the plot is solid and flows well, and there were no moments that took me out of the experience. However, there are some holes in parts of the setup. For example, the antagonists have a plan to transform all humans into witches, and they need the “Fly-by-night” – a mysterious flower that grants Mary her temporary magical powers – to complete the metamorphosis. It is an emotionally affecting conflict, especially when you encounter the animals who’ve been subjected to testing. Still, the intent of their scheme isn’t especially clear. If they succeed, what happens next? On first watch, the film doesn’t really show or tell you that; instead, side characters just explain why it’s dangerous. The final showdown and the buildup to it is still plenty exciting, but there were times I wish the narrative tying the visuals together was more fleshed out.

I greatly appreciated the film’s core message – though Mary has fun with her magic powers at the beginning of the film, she ultimately proves herself in the third act without them. It’s great to see her – a girl who feels limited by her clumsiness – demonstrate that you don’t need special powers to do special things. I do wonder if her dramatic hairstyle change had something to do with it, though…

Studio Ponoc’s intent, at least as portrayed in Western media, is to capture the spirit of Ghibli with a twist. Mary and the Witch’s Flower demonstrates that they are quite capable of that from a visual standpoint. For the most part, it’s a dead ringer for the Ghibli house style, but there are some tropes Ponoc opts not to carry over (things like the Miyazaki laugh and the electric jolt are nowhere to be found). I also think the sense of humor present is distinctly Ponoc’s – there is a “red-haired monkey” gag in the second act that got everyone in my theater laughing. I can’t think of a comparable moment in a Ghibli film. Also, I felt the antagonists were much hammier than Ghibli’s. Studio Ponoc definitely has a knack for visual elements and can keep a story tied together. I am not familiar with director Yonebayashi Hiromasa’s previous works, but having seen this film, I am interested in checking them out.

As it stands, Mary and the Witch’s Flower represents a young animation studio with a lot of promise. It’s a visually adept piece with very solid world-building. When watching it, I was thoroughly engrossed from start to finish and fell in love with the titular heroine, rooting for her the entire time. The film misses greatness by way of some ambiguous moments in the screenplay, but if it is any indication, Studio Ponoc is capable of great things! I’m eager to see what they will make next.

This commentary is based on the Japanese language version of the film. Mary and the Witch’s Flower released in Japan in July 2017. GKIDS premiered the film in partnership with Fathom Events on January 18th, 2018, and are currently screening the film in North America (both in English dub and in Japanese with English subtitles) in limited release. Click here to see if the film is playing in your area!

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