Mary and the Witch’s Flower
(Meari to Majo no Hana)
Directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi
HERE’S A pretty pickle: how do you follow after the work of arguably one of the greatest animated studios in recent decades? With the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki and the shuttering of Studio Ghibli (actually old news: he has come out of retirement and the studio has since unshuttered) many of the people who worked there established their own outfit, Studio Ponoc, and this film — Mary and the Witch’s Flower (Meari to Majo no Hana), helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi (When Marnie Was There, Secret World of Arrietty) is their debut offering.
On first glance you’d think they simply stepped right into the problem: the opening is an escape as wordless and thrilling as the opening of Castle in the Sky: young girl, cradling some blue and precious object, flies away in a broom stick, closely pursued by creatures not unlike the glutinous henchmen in Howl’s Moving Castle ( Mr. Miyazaki, among other obsessions, has his gleefully scatological side); an explosion of unknown origin, the broom blown out of control, and the girl plummets to an unknown fate below.
More echoes and borrowings to follow: an insecure girl a la Spirited Away, only this time named Mary (voiced in English by Ruby Barnhill) and possessed of hair of brightest ginger; a large-headed elder named Madam Mumblechook (Kate Winslet), not unlike Yubaba in the same film; cats straight out of Whispers of the Heart and a school of magic straight out of Harry Potter (only more childishly fanciful); a climax that recalls the uncontrollable forces unleashed in Princess Mononoke.
We’ve seen it all before for the most part, and Ponoc with Yonebayashi seem content to merely parrot (though to be fair, parroting some of the finest hand-drawn images ever), the various motifs shuffled and mixed to seem new, or newish.
I submit that what we see here is studio and filmmaker following their instincts: to start with a characteristically Japanese gesture of humility (in effect bowing deep and saying “I am but a student of the master and apologize in advance for the clumsiness of my work”) and proceeding to tell their own tale, the struggle to find a voice in the shadow of Mr. Miyazaki and Ghibli. Mary is unhappy with everything about her, from her clumsiness to her outrageously stiff and bright red hair; the domestic scenes at Aunt Charlotte’s (Lynda Baron) estate that sketch this (Mary’s parents are at work elsewhere, and she’s staying for the summer) have the heartfelt quality of self-confession. When Mary unwittingly lands at Endor College for Witches and Warlocks and is extravagantly praised, part of the humor of the situation is that she knows the praise is undeserved — all she’s done, really, is find a glowing blue flower in a field (the same flower — hint — the unknown girl in the film’s opening had stolen).
Things quickly go south of course. Mary is cast out of the college, her power broken, her friend Peter (voice of Louis Ashbourne Serkis, channeling the abrasive charm of the boy in Whispers) imprisoned; she’s basically cornered into facing herself and what, when all is said and done, she truly is, and in a mirror in a home that has been long abandoned does exactly that.
The film is visually lush, full of the kind of bright colors you remember from Mr. Miyazaki’s early films. That’s a problem — Mr. Yonebayashi is channeling Ghibli films from the 1990s and early 2000s when Miyazaki himself has moved on — the art in Ponyo has this wonderful unfinished quality (visible brushstrokes, sketched-in backgrounds) that suggest someone confident enough not to bother covering every inch of his canvas with paint, that the imagery and ideas are strong enough to hold the viewer spellbound (Isao Takahata — the other great Ghibli filmmaker — pushed this idea even further in his great The Tale of Princess Kuguya, with watercolors that seem to have been tossed out in a hurry, and are all the more enchanting for it). Mr. Yonebayashi seems trapped in the past, some 10 years before; like his heroine he seems unsure or unconfident at the inevitable comparisons that will be made between him and his master and mentor — and personally I find that insecurity poignant, winning even.
By the time of the film’s Mononoke-like finale (Daidarabotchi anyone?) things have gone to hell and a handbasket and Mary and Peter are basically left to themselves — again the self-reflexive metaphor, the desperation that seems sincere. If you think of the giant glowing-blue monster as the film’s equivalent of Mr. Miyazaki’s reputation, still alive and rampaging and still controlling the hearts and minds of the audience you’re supposed to win over (and, if reports are true, about to dominate the animation landscape again with not one but two feature films [the second to be directed by his son Goro]) what are you to do? What can you do? Dig into yourself, I suppose and hope for the best. Which, when all is said and done, is all that any of us can do, in similar circumstance.