Mar 2, 2018
Bajar (All reviews)
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.