Even if you don’t happen to know the story behind Mary And The Witch’s Flower’s production, there may be something strangely familiar about the company logo that fades up at the start: a simple line drawing of a little girl in profile, smiling benignly; beneath, the words “Studio Ponoc”. It seems intended to recall the logo of Studio Ghibli, with its line-drawing of Totoro – the friendly woodland spirit who’s been the animation house’s mascot since 1988.
There’s a good reason for the family resemblance: Studio Ponoc was founded by Hiromasa Yonabayashi, former animator at Studio Ghibli and the director of the company’s latter-day movies, Arrietty and When Marnie Was There. Mary And The Witch’s Flower continues the Ghibli house style, right down to the European literary source material and sumptuous animation. Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki has no involvement in Studio Ponoc (he’s been busily taking himself in and then out of retirement again in recent years), but his spirit’s all over the firm’s debut. At first, this it to the film’s benefit – it really is beautifully animated – but gradually, the similarities to earlier Ghibli works becomes a little stifling.
The opening is a delight. A mysterious young woman flees from a magical castle, a swarm of fish-like creatures following in her wake. Having stolen a handful of magical flowers, the woman takes to the sky on a broomstick, but winds up dropping the flowers in a woodland clearing. The flowers, on hitting the ground, explode in a flash of shimmering colour, turbo-charging the growth of trees and grass…
What’s actually going on here won’t become clear until later, but as a demonstration of Studio Ponoc’s technical mastery of hand-drawn animation, it’s an impressive opening. Later, we finally meet Mary Smith: an ordinary English girl who hates her red hair and lives with her Great Aunt Charlotte in the countryside. Bored from playing alone over a long summer break, convinced of her own clumsiness and self-conscious about her shock of auburn hair, Mary whiles away her time playing in the woods – and it’s here that she stumbles on two things that lead her off on a strange adventure: one, a surly black cat named Tib, and two, a sprig of those blue magic flowers we first saw in the prologue.
A complicated sequence of events leads Mary to a Hogwarts-style college for witches and warlocks, where she’s initially hailed as a magical prodigy. Gradually, though, Mary realises that the teachers – among them the formidable Madame Mumblechook and the secretive Doctor Dee – are far less benign than they first appear.
Based on The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, Mary And The Witch’s Flower is a feather-light tale that will likely delight younger audiences, while followers of Studio Ghibli’s output can drink in all the details in the backgrounds and character designs. Both visually and thematically, though, Studio Ponoc’s debut reads like a compendium of its parent company’s greatest hits. The witch’s college has a magic-and-science, steampunk feel of the flying island in Laputa; the plucky heroine on a broomstick most obviously recalls Kiki’s Delivery Service, and there are nods (either intentional or otherwise) to the likes of Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo and much more besides.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, because the artistry at play means that Mary looks stunning in its own right. But the characters don’t quite carry the spark of personality that Ghibli’s movies so reliably did; aside from Mary, the supporting characters, from a little boy on a bike named Peter to the kindly great aunt, are largely one-dimensional. Tellingly, it’s the non-human characters, like Tib the cat, who give off the most personality.
Several moments flirt with an almost Freudian air of creepiness, from a Doctor Moreau-like mad scientist’s experiments in a darkened lab to a later spell’s need for an “innocent” sacrificial victim. But Mary And The Witch’s Flower can’t quite muster the drama and pathos to make these moments really pay off; unlike Miyazaki’s later movies, that often meandered in a dreamlike way, Ponoc’s debut has a definite beginning, middle and end – even something of a Hero’s Journey-type arc for Mary. The pace and flatness of the characters means that it all never quite builds to a dramatic crescendo as it should.
Again, though, this is a technically assured debut from a fledgling studio. It must be getting increasingly tough to bankroll something as time-consuming and expensive as a hand-drawn feature film these days, even in a country with as mature an animation industry as Japan’s; actually making something that approaches Studio Ghibli’s work must be harder still. It’s probably a little unfair that we’ve evoked Ghibli’s name quite so often in this review; maybe it’s telling, though, that Mary And The Witch’s Flower bears such a strong family resemblance that it inevitably winds up being compared to its parent company’s output.
All the same, Mary And The Witch’s Flower looks beautiful on a big screen, and thanks to Takatsugu Muramatsu’s music, it also sounds spectacular. Here’s hoping this is just the beginning for Studio Ponoc, and that its future movies see it climb to even more magical heights.
Mary And The Witch’s Flower is out in UK cinemas on the 4th May.