More noise than signal

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Titular young lass Mary finds herself shipped off to her Great Aunt Charlotte’s manor house in advance of her parents arrival, but has little to do. She tries to be useful around the home, but being clumsy by nature, causes more trouble than help. She can’t even wield an adult-sized broomstick properly, causing a farcical scene that local lad Peter mocks Mary for, along with her unruly red hair, which she’s self conscious of.

While exploring the garden one day, she follows two cats in to the woods and finds a little broomstick and an unusual blue flower, later identified by the entirely normally named gardener Zebedee as a fly-by-night, which folklore would have witches covet for its magical powers. For good reason, it turns out, as another piece of trademark Mary brand clumsiness sees her crush part of the flower against the broomstick, making it fly, and also giving her the ability to use magic.

Unbidden, the broomstick takes her to the Endor College for witches, not that Endor, presumably, where the seemingly kindly Madame Mumblechook and Doctor Dee assume she’s a new student and give her the grand tour, with Mary’s flowerbourne powers greatly impressing all. Eventually as her powers wear off, and still half thinking she’s dreaming, Mary confesses to having no innate magical ability, and tells the Madame about the flower.

This turns out to be a mistake, as both Madame and the Doctor are obsessed with the rare flower, believing with some reason, it to be the key to magical transformation of animals and people, as their menagerie of test subjects will attest to. While they seem to let Mary leave amiably enough, they turn heel immediately, kidnapping Peter as leverage to have Mary delivery the flower to them, before double crossing her and proceeding with experiments that will put Peter in danger. Mary, of course, is having none of that and sets about saving him, aided by the broomstick and the last of the flower’s magic.

This is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, last spoken of here in our most recent Studio Ghibli episode. The director of Arriety and When Marnie Was There left Team Ghibli at some point, I believe during the uncertainty of what was happening after Miyazaki’s latest, now apparently undone retirement, joining Studio Ponoc along with a number of other ex-Ghiblies. The heritage shows, and if I didn’t know different I’m sure I’d think this was a Ghibli film.

It’s a very pretty film, with relatable, amusing characters and nicely handled action, and I was thoroughly entertained throughout the piece. I heartily recommend it. I say this now, because while there’s a few criticisms I could make, and will, these are the things that stop a very good film becoming an excellent one, and as tired old geezer I often sound more negative then I feel.

To a degree it has a touch of the Arriety about it, by which I mean it’s a bunch of stuff that happens then stops. There’s not much in the way of character development for anyone – Mary’s confident and determined at the start of the film, so unless maybe feeling a bit better about her hair counts, there’s not much of a character arc there. Still, as I say, she’s charming enough that I don’t think this matters, apart from missing an opportunity to leverage some emotion from it.

I’d love to find a reliable comparison of budget and schedule between this and, say When Marnie Was There. This isn’t quite as polished as Yonebayashi’s Ghibli output, but it’s really close. I wonder if there’s the same “it’s done when it’s done” attitude Ghibli had at Studio Ponoc, or if financial realities for a brand new studio cause a different mindset. But that’s heading into idle speculation territory, and it seems like the success of Mary and the Witch’s Flower has ensured the short-term future for Ponoc, and I very much look forward to whatever they produce next.