By Tom Moore
When it was announced that legendary animator/filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki was retiring from feature filmmaking back in 2013 due to his age, there was a lot of questions as to what the fate of Studio Ghibli, one of the greatest film studios in history, would be. At the time, there was a decision made to put the studio on pause while certain decision would be made about the studio’s future, so as Ghibli faded into purgatory, another studio began to form. Longtime Ghibli producer Yoshiaki Nishimura decided to found a new animation studio, Studio Ponoc, and brought on plenty of veteran Ghibli talent, including “Arietty” and “When Marnie Was There” director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, to create the studio’s first film – “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” (2017).
The film, based on Mary Stewart’s novel “The Little Broomstick”, followed a young girl named Mary (voiced by Hana Sugisaki/Ruby Barnhill) that travels to a secluded witch’s college in the sky called Endor College after stumbling upon the mystical fly-by-night flower and an old broomstick. After exploring the magical and magnificent campus alongside Madam Mumblechook (voiced by Yuki Amani/Kate Winslet), the school’s headmaster, Mary notices something mischievous going on and ultimately needs to harness and understand her power in order to put a stop to the strange experiments happening at Endor.
Just within the first few minutes of watching the film, you can tell that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is not only incredibly similar to the artistic style of a Studio Ghibli film, but also that it’s really an ode to the studio and Miyazaki as a whole. The animation instantly gives you vibes of “Howl’s Moving Castle” and the mystical coming of age storytelling just live and breathe inspiration from pretty much all of Studio Ghibli’s work. With the film having a mostly Ghibli crew behind it, the film is really a passing of the torch. It embodies all of the heart, humor, and high-quality animation of a Ghibli film and there’s even a small nod of appreciation to Studio Ghibli founders Isao Takahata, Toshio Suzuki, and Miyazaki in the end credits.
“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” isn’t just a nod to one of the great though, as the film helps Ponoc come into their own through their adaptation of Stewart’s story and Mary’s journey into a magical world of witches. Mary’s discovery of Endor gives off vibes of Harry Potter first arriving at Hogwarts as this school for witches is hard not to find yourself marveling at every visual like Mary does. The entire sequence of Mumblechook showing Mary the campus is incredibly ambitious and a unique look at the more educational side of the witching world. From magical spell and potion classes to a demanding and even deadly side to the athletics within the school, a trip through Endor is really like walking through Hogwarts but made even wilder through the film’s animation. There’s also an exploration of science and magic living together and being a pivotal part of witchcraft. Often times witches are just shown to be masters of the mystical arts, but the film shows that it’s more of a combination of the two and shows two often opposing views, science and magic, working together as one.
Where the film isn’t so unique with its depiction of witches is with Mumblechook as she’s shown as a hierarchy witch using Mary in order reclaim stolen fly-by-nights – which enhance Mary’s magical abilities. It always seems like witches are on the hunt for that final ingredient, that special spell, or that special person that will make them all-powerful or complete some special ritual. That’s pretty much the case here as Mumblechook is after the fly-by-night to enhance the abilities of the witches and warlocks of Endor to make so powerful that they will change the world under her guidance the help of mad scientist Dr. Dee (voiced by Fumiyo Kohinata/Jim Broadbent). After a student discovers the fly-by-night flower, the two become obsessed with progress and poisoned by their failures. Their obsession for change and success definitely adds in some shades of gray that most Ghibli villains have, but there’s no doubt they represent a more power-hungry view of witches that we’ve seen before.
“The whole idea of magic and being a witch isn’t just something that makes Mary able to stop Mumblechook and Dee when their experiment fails, but also acts a way for Mary to see her own strengths and find a greater connection to the world.”
Mary’s journey to understanding magic and her magical heritage is a little more unique as it’s one of self-discovery. Before she discovers the fly-by-night, Mary is just your typical young girl who’s bored and unable to make herself useful around her great aunt’s north English country estate. Feeling lost within the normal world, she ends up feeling a part of something bigger when she comes to Endor and she shows she has quite a knack for magic. With everyone impressed by her uncanny ability to control magical items and abilities, Mary finds a sense of confidence and belonging that she never had before and ultimately makes her feel a stronger connection to home as she discovers that her great aunt Charlotte (voiced by Shinobu Otake/Lynda Baron) was also a witch. The whole idea of magic and being a witch isn’t just something that makes Mary able to stop Mumblechook and Dee when their experiment fails, but also acts a way for Mary to see her own strengths and find a greater connection to the world. Even just having her throw away the last of the fly-by-night bulbs and leave magic behind, speaks to her journey being about self-discovery and it’s what makes the magic and witch elements of the story more pivotal and meaningful.
“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” gave Studio Ponoc one hell of a debut and an emotional parting gift to the studio and artists that inspired them. While we’re still waiting for the next big adventure from Ponoc, it looks like Studio Ghibli is making a return with a witch story of their own. The next film slated to be released by Studio Ghibli looks to be Goro Miyazaki’s, Hayao’s son and director of “From Up on Poppy Hill”, “Earwig and the Witch” – which is actually going to be released pretty soon in Japan and hopefully make it’s way to the US soon after. Hayao is also coming out of retirement to deliver what looks to be his magnum opus with “How Do You Live?” So, while Ghibli is rebuilding themselves, it looks like they’ll have some healthy competition from Ponoc, whenever they come out of the woodworks again, and that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is the start of something magical in the future.