Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not reach the heights of Ghibli’s best but nevertheless marks a mildly auspicious start to the Studio Ponoc offshoot.
Studio Ghibli has a long history of spirited female protagonists, and Ghibli alum Hiromasa Yonebayashi continues in that vein with Mary and the Witch’s Flower, the first film under the new Studio Ponoc banner. Based on Mary Stewart’s 1971 novel The Little Broomstick, the film opens at full sprint, as a young girl furtively dashes away from a burning castle above the clouds, a pouch of magical seeds in hand. She’s whisked away by a trusty broomstick and is chased by a phalanx of flying porpoise-like creatures, ultimately falling to earth, where the glowing, blue seeds take root.
When we’re introduced to the plucky, redheaded Mary (Ruby Barnhill), her situation is far less thrilling. She’s listless and bored at the rural English home she occupies with Great-Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron), but when a mysterious cat leads her into the forest, she discovers the coveted “fly-by-night” flower, which blooms only once every seven years and, when picked, bestows her with powerful magical abilities in one-night increments. With the help of the abandoned broomstick she happens upon, she’s transported above the clouds to the ornate Endor College, an elaborate, physics-defying school for witches that, perhaps—despite its source material predating anything written by J.K. Rowling—hews too closely to Hogwarts for the film’s own good.
Endor College’s bigwigs—the powerful, dignified Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and diminutive, gadget-laden Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent)—are instantly dazzled by Mary’s powers and, unaware she’s merely under the influence of the fly-by-night, declare her a top-level prodigy and hastily enroll her in the school. The film begins to play out as a familiar tale of a misfit finally finding a place to call home by entering some fantastical realm. But when Mary discovers that the school is also conducting cruel experiments to transform animals into other creatures, immorally keeping the vividly-rendered “failures” of these experiments locked up, she also uncovers that Madam Mumblechook is driven mad with the desire to get her hands on the coveted witch’s flower.
It’s at this point that the film’s initial promise begins to wear thin. Mary’s fibs to Mumblechook lead the schoolmaster to abduct Peter (Louis Ashbourne Serkis), a local boy who had previously enjoyed only a benignly antagonistic relationship with Mary, and the threat of the witch transforming Peter into a hideous monster dangles over the proceedings. The desperation with which Mary works to save Peter rings a bit hollow given that their emotional connection mimics little more than the annoyance between Coraline and Wybie in Henry Selick’s Coraline. And when Great-Aunt Charlotte’s own history with the witch’s flower gets thrown into the mix, we realize just how underdeveloped the interpersonal relationships in this film are, especially compared to the emotionally moving previous work by Yonebayashi, most notably his final Ghibli film, When Marnie Was There.
The film also comments on the danger of science taken to immoral extremes; the research done at Endor College is a hybrid of science and spells, where even electricity is seen as a form of magic. Thankfully, this angle isn’t belabored—there’s enough anti-science sentiment going around lately—and simply adds a little more real-world dimension to what is otherwise a fantastic fairy tale. With enough visual spectacle to carry along the weaker aspects of its narrative, Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not reach the heights of Ghibli’s best but nevertheless marks a mildly auspicious start to the Studio Ponoc offshoot.