It is Tib the black cat who leads Mary to the strange flower in the woods. When she discovers a little broomstick shortly afterwards, she is astonished to feel it jump into action. Before she can gather her wits, it is whisking her over the treetops, above the clouds, and into the grounds of Endor College, where: "All Examinations Coached for by A Competent Staff of Fully-Qualified Witches."
Here she discovers evidence of a terrible experiment in transformation—deformed and mutant animals imprisoned in cages. In the moment after her broomstick takes off, she realizes that Tib has been captured. Returning to the College the following day, she manages to free the animals, but not before the Head of the college, Miss Mumblechuuk, and her colleague, Doctor D, have seen her. Mary manages to flee...but the evil pair is in hot pursuit!
When I consider whether a show is worth watching there are three main factors I take into consideration: quality, entertainment factor, and the overall message.
Mary and the Witch's Flower was produced by Studio Ponoc, formed by former members of Studio Ghibli and directed by Academy Award-nominated Hiromasa Yonebayashi. It is based off of The Little Broomstick by the Scottish Mary Stewart, which is why it has a very Nothern atmosphere. Though originally released mid 2017 in Japan, Mary and the Witch's Flower only reached Australia on the 18th of January with dubs and subs both available.
As to be expected from former Ghibli staff, the production
quality is excellent. The character designs are well done and modern, the artwork and animation is very impressive and the soundtrack, by Takatsugu Muramatsu who also did the music for When Marnie Was There and Yuasa's Lu Over the Wall, is appropriate and grand. The soundtrack and visuals contribute greatly to the atmosphere and the impression we have of magic. The mark of a well directed movie is if it's easy to follow what is going on. An example of this concept done poorly is The Last Jedi, which was difficult to follow and was not exciting when exciting things were happening on screen. Mary and the Witch's Flower doesn't have any of those problems; the movie flows well and everything is clear.
The character of Mary is the polar opposite of Anna from When Marnie Was There (the Academy Award-nominated Yonebayashi film). Very energetic, tries to do everything, doesn't give up even when she's being a burden, etc. This works well to tell the story, especially since Mary is thrown into a place that she doesn't understand whatsoever. Willingness to try new things and having no earthly idea what is going on is a smart writing technique to introduce the world and important characters since it doesn't have to be preachy or on-the-nose with exposition. However, there is an exposition scene towards the end which didn't need to happen and opened up holes in the plot in the build up to that exposition. Unfortunately, although Mary works well as the lead, none of the other characters seem to have much to them. There are the generic antagonists who want more power but are technically not evil, the boy who will inevitably become important and befriend Mary, a plot convenience talking fox thing that shows up at suspiciously optimal times and solves too many problems for what little character he has, and Mary's grandmother who has two scenes and does nothing useful. Peter, who is an important plot point but a relatively uninspired character who didn't get enough screentime early on, has too much emotional payoff around him for how little he has to his character. This makes the climax slightly awkward.
The writing is on and off. Most of the plot is decent enough, but magic is poorly explained. This shouldn't normally be a problem, because magic isn't supposed to make sense, but the magic academy has some form of magic-infused science which has clear rules. Poorly explained magic in a world where there are rules and scientific principles is not excusable. Inconsistent uses of magic happen a fair amount in the latter half of the film and can detract from the immersion because of how noticeable it is. The motivations of the antagonists is directly related to the theme of the movie, which was that progress at all costs is a bad thing. The film deals with the antagonists in a goofy and whimsical way. There is quite a lot about the film that is whimsical, including character interactions between Peter and Mary, a joke which takes 45 minutes to finally get the punchline, any time Mary uses a broomstick or when there is an escape sequence. It's never a big issue but it wasn't balanced too well with the substantial parts of the movie, which were lacking.
This movie is primarily aimed at children and young girls. For that audience, Mary and the Witch's Flower will be a blast. The magic, thanks to the visuals and sound, is impressive and wondrous. The opening scene of the movie is exciting and the lighting is well done. It starts of the movie well, though it's a big tonal shift going from exciting magic to watching an ordinary 12 year old girl do ordinary things. There's enough going on in the plot that you probably won't get bored.
The problems come with the inconsistencies with magic and the plot holes accompanying them. They can ruin the immersion, take you out of the scene and annoy you. The exposition scene towards the end is another mistake because it involved telling us things we already knew. The exposition is likely necessary for children to understand how scenes connect, but the exposition didn't tell us anything we didn't know or anything we needed to know. As far as exposition goes, it was poor. The most fun parts of the movie are where magic is being used to do all sorts of cool things. Luckily, this is the entire second half of the movie.
The core messages were along the lines of "progress at all costs is not worth it" and "you shouldn't change yourself for the sake of change". The messages were clear and shown visually in the latter half. They are well executed because they aren't preachy about it and don't monologue about what the message is and what they learned. For the intended audience, the messages are appropriate and could apply directly to them.
There are some smaller messages, like that you shouldn't abandon what you care about, not to ab use power and that you should take responsibility for the things you cause, but they aren't emphasised at all and are off cuts of the main meal. Of course, there is that one scene where a cow-person is carving up some meat to serve as food, which is quite morally reprehensible. Mary and the Witch's Flower is simple and you shouldn't expect anything else. It does enough to be engaging and somewhat impressive, but not enough to be fantastic and has too many flaws to become a classic or cult-classic.
Should you really watch Mary and the Witch's Flower?
Mary and the Witch's Flower is on par with the Ghibli classics. As the first work by Studio Ponoc, Mary serves as the default flagship of the studio. As such, a lot of expectations were placed on this movie. Given Studio Ponoc's unproven nature, I wasn't sure what to expect from this movie. I feared that I would perhaps find this movie to be lacklustre and uninspired. Instead what I got was a film that rivals some of the best works from Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki.
Similar to my favourite Ghibli films, the best part of Mary's story is how her character grows throughout.
The story starts with the protagonist Mary Smith, having recently moved, living with her Great Aunt as well as a maid and a gardener. Her attempts to help with housework and gardening go poorly and to add insult to injury she is teased by a local boy, named Peter, for her frizzy red hair. It's very apparent by the end of the movie that Mary has grown as a character. Originally she views herself as useless and talent-less, this is symbolized by her hatred of her own hair. When magical talent is thrust upon her by means of the titular Witch's Flower, she gains confidence. This gained confidence is perhaps undeserved as Mary only gained her powers by chance. Later, after her talent is stripped away by losing the Witch's Flower, is when she has to face her greatest challenges. Instead of relying on the gifted talent from the Witch's Flower, Mary has to overcome these challenges using her newfound confidence as well as other positive traits such as courage, ingenuity, and staying true to her convictions. Watching the main character gain confidence over the course of the movie is a super satisfying experience that is reminiscent of my favourite Ghibli protagonists; Chihiro from Spirited Away and Kiki from Kiki's Delivery Service. They both have similar character growth in their films.
If you want to teach a lesson in a children's film, it should not be too blatant. Any themes should flow seamlessly with the plot and should avoid becoming too much of a focus at the risk of making the film seem preachy. Mary and the Witch's Flower does not have this problem. The primary theme in Mary is probably the dangers of recklessly pursuing scientific advancement. Endor College's experiments on animals are shown as being reckless and unethical. Although these experiments use magic instead of science, it is still easy to make this comparison given that magic is compared to science in the film. Mumblechook, the school's headmistress, explains that electricity is just another form of magic and the character of Doctor Dee is very reminiscent of a mad scientist. It's important to note that the villains are not portrayed as maliciously evil but rather as misguided and with good intentions. The villains are very obsessive over the Witch's Flower which reminded me of Gollum's obsession with the One Ring in Lord of the Rings. As the villains are somewhat transformed by their obsession with the flower it becomes easy to empathize with them. It also adds some moral ambiguity to the story and themes which I prefer rather than having a blatantly unapologetic evil villain.
When commenting on his character design for Mary, Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi expressed that he wanted Mary's outward appearance to reflect her inner feelings. He achieved this by giving her large bushy eyebrows and a large mouth. Those physical characteristics are a great fit for her tomboyish personality. However the best and most obvious characteristic of Mary is her bright red messy hair. As stated earlier, Mary's hair acts somewhat as a metaphor for her own character growth. At the beginning of the film she hates her hair and the teasing it causes her. To mitigate this she ties her hair back with bows. Later, at Endor College, she is praised for her hair's uniqueness and rarity with Madame Mumblechook claiming red is the ideal hair colour for a witch. Near the end of the film she removes her bows and lets her hair down in a beautiful shot that is a metaphor for her confidence and conviction that she has gained. In addition to its symbolic qualities, Mary's hair is just really beautiful and nice to look at. Throughout the film I found my attention drawn to her hair. Some of the best moments in the film feature Mary's hair prominently. Mary's hatred of her own hair is absolutely adorable and reminded me of the protagonist from the classic novel Anne of Green Gables. It's very clear that Peter likes Mary's hair despite his teasing of her. The interactions between Peter and Mary are just adorable to watch. Peter also humorously compares Mary's appearance to a monkey. This joke is brought back later when an actual red haired monkey appears leading to one of the funniest moments in the movie.
The animation in Mary and the Witch's Flower is comparable to that of Ghibli's works. If you are not familiar, Ghibli is well known for its very high quality. Ghibli has a unique style and feel to their work that Mary and the Witch's Flower also possesses. The studio that made Mary and the Witch's Flower consists mostly of former Ghibli staff so the similarities are not unexpected. My favourite part of the animation are Mary's facial expressions and hair.
It is hard to find a weak-point in the film. Every frame seems to fulfill a purpose. Nothing in the film felt like a waste of space or time. In fact my biggest complaint about the film is that I wish it was longer. At the movie's current length it is absolutely packed with content. There is not a single dull moment. The limitations of the kid's movie format means that Mary and the Witch's Flower is probably at its maximum potential length as is. It certainly feels to me like content had to be cut to get down to the 102 minute run-time.
From black cats to broomsticks, everything you expect from a witch themed anime is present here. Despite the fact that I am an adult male and the target audience for witch themed things are young girls, I still find myself a huge fan of the witch aesthetic. Ghibli has done witches before with Kiki's Delivery Service and Endor College seems inspired by Little Witch Academia's Luna Nova or Harry Potter's Hogwarts, but whatever Mary and the Witch's Flower lacks in originality it makes up for in execution. The design of Endor College in particular is very whimsical and fantastical. Endor College is comparable to some of the best settings that Ghibli has created such as Laputa or the bathhouse from Spirited Away. On the other end of the spectrum the design of the real world is also very well done. The movie is set in rural England in the 1960s or 1970s and they did a wonderful job of recreating that. Mary's home has the aesthetic of a grandmother's house and it is just so well crafted that it fills me with nostalgia. The voice acting also goes a long way for the setting. All the characters speak with British accents. This movie may be better to watch dubbed due to the fact that the movie has a British setting and that the English language cast includes 2 Academy Award winners. Despite my praise for the English version, I haven't had the chance to watch the movie with the Japanese audio, so I'm not confident in saying which language this film is better to watch in definitively.
Overall the strongest thing I can say about Mary and the Witch's Flower is that it made me feel the same emotions that I've felt when watching my favourite works from Studio Ghibli. Mary's character growth is extremely satisfying to watch unfold and reminded me of my favourite Ghibli characters. The themes in the film are not overly preachy and I appreciated the moral ambiguity of the central conflict. Mary's character design is Ghibli-esque but her adorable yet fiery red hair sets her apart. The animation quality is excellent and really pleasurable to watch. The film is thoroughly entertaining throughout all 102 minutes. The worlds featured in the film are both whimsical and fantastical on one hand, while being down-to-earth, quaint, and nostalgic on the other. Studio Ponoc completely succeeded in making a film that contains all the things that made me fall in love with Studio Ghibli.
Just saw メアリと魔女の花, "Mary and the Witch's Flower". I thought it was a good movie, very good for a studio's first movie, but it leaves me feeling that there could have been a lot more. I also have some major questions. The biggest one is, you are at a magic school, and you showed all of these students... where are they when all this stuff goes down? It's like they are there for the opening, then they are gone. Other than that, it was a beautiful movie visually, and the story was interesting. I would suggest going to see it. I'll buy the blu-ray when
it comes out, it I don't think I'll see this movie in theaters more than once.
It's really sad when you know your favorite studio anime have already separately from each other, AND yet Studio Ghibli vs. Studio Ponoc.
Of course, this Mary and the Witch’s Flower is created by Studio Ponoc. As you can see their artsyle it doesn't any different with Ghibli Studio and all the worldbuilding in this movie, they're also learned from Studio Ghibli. So you could call this movie's rip-off from Kiki's Delivery Service and Little Witch Academia.
I admit that I'm truly enjoyed this movie even though I kinda sad about those studio condition (Ghibli & Ponoc), it seem they're become sibling rivalry.
Thanks Hiromasa Yonebayashi because you could manage this movie very well and "Mary and the Witch’s Flower" is totally decent movie.
If you love fantasy movie or you're fanboy & fangirl of Studio Ghibli. Try watching this rip-off movie.