Familiar Fantasy: Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Miyazaki Hayao retiring from making films only to pick up his pencil once again is a running joke in animation, but just a couple of years ago the end of Studio Ghibli felt all too real, as a trio of announcements landed one after another. First, Miyazaki declared his retirement following the release of The Wind Rises. Then, Takahata suggested that The Tale of Princess Kaguya could be his last. Finally, Studio Ghibli itself announced that they would end film production. It looked to be not just the end of works by Miyazaki and Takahata, the two titanic figures that defined Japanese animation for filmgoers around the world, but also the end two the far-reaching, culture-crossing mainstream works that characterize Studio Ghibli.

However, while the studio itself had shut down, the people who made up the staff of Ghibli were still around, trained in the Ghibli style. Led by director Yonebayashi Hiromasa, a number of them for founded Studio Ponoc with the clear desire to keep making Ghibli-style films even without the brand name. Their first work is Mary and the Witch’s Flower, a film which is technically and artistically solid but seems to serve more as a message, that the “Ghibli film” can survive even without its most famous leaders.

Mary and the Witch’s Flower ticks all of the basic boxes. Based on a European children’s book? Check. Plucky young female protagonist? Check. Vibrant environments? Fluid animation? Sense of wonder? Check, check, check. Little is technically or narratively wrong with the film, but it seems almost cut from the same cloth as Star Wars: The Force Awakens; both works seem concerned with reassuring audiences that they’re going to get what they expect.

On that level, Mary and the Witch’s Flower delivers. It’s a film I’d easily recommend to those who enjoy Ghibli films, and while I consider the against-formula The Wind Rises to be my favorite Miyazaki work, I understand that the legacy of Kiki, Nausicaa, and Sheeta is important. As much as I value innovation in anime, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary, especially when no one else had even tried to step up to the Ghibli plate, for better or worse.

One observation I had was that Mary and the Witch’s Flower lacked some of the minute polish of Miyazaki’s films—the man is famous for his obsessive attention to detail, only slowing down once age caught up with him. I don’t think this difference is a deal breaker, and if it spared the animators a little bit in terms of health and wellbeing, that’d be just fine. The film is beautiful regardless, though I think that the setting of The Secret World of Arrietty—Yonebayashi’s previous film—does a better job of showing off the Ghibli/Ponoc staff’s chops.

As proof that Studio Ponoc can deliver what they’re selling, Mary and the Witch’s Flower succeeds. Now, I want to see their The Last Jedi.

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