The announcement that a group of animators at Studio Ghibli had broken off from the company to form their own, Studio Ponoc, came at a time when we needed hope for a brighter future, not simply for hand-drawn animation. So many studios have barreled past cinematic illustration into perceived higher technologies, abandoning the simple, yet boundless, storytelling of the blank page, so the thought that the passing of Ghibli as a film house would signal the end of the cherished medium was pretty mortifying. The Ponoc news was particularly reassuring in its announcement that their first film would be helmed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a director whose work with Ghibli signaled a new guard of quieter, more intimate directors to carry on the studio’s tradition in their own way.
Now Mary and the Witch’s Flower brings that hope for a bright future to fruition, but it struggles quite visibly to get out of the shadow of Ghibli, particularly its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. Loosely adapted from Mary Stewart’s “The Little Broomstick”, Mary is a pretty straightforward feat of fantasy tourism, launching its titular character in a fantastical world with not much emotionally guiding her and too many hollow characters forcing her narrative directions. The skeleton of Ghibli isn’t simply adapted, but practically grave-snatched, and while Yonebayashi, directing his first film outside his former studio, knows how to make it fashionably glisten, he somehow fails to give it the guts and bold existential anxiety that he’d so entrancingly cultivated on Arrietty and When Marnie Was There.
Mary is a typical Ghibli heroine, full of anxieties about her self-image with the arrogance of Chihiro (Spirited Away) and the social difficulties of Kiki (Kiki’s Delivery Service). She’s just moved into her Great Aunt’s country home, far away from everyone her age except snotty local boy Peter, who dares mock Mary’s frizzy ginger hair while sporting a cow-licked mess of straw hair. Even on the mundane everyday level, our suspension of disbelief is being challenged. While even the most schematic Ghibli protagonists had some significant internal turmoil fueling them as they dive into the fantastical, Mary’s lone motivator is simply declaring that she’s terrible at everything, even though it’s her first attempt at any of the rural activities she tries her hand at. If it were a more crippling anxiety about her own self-worth, then she might be a more compelling figure to follow, but Mary is simply at that naive age of not realizing it takes time and patience to learn a trade. It doesn’t just magically hap.. oh, wait a minute.
Of course she doesn’t have the time to realize this before discovering a mysterious blue flower, fly-by-night, that suddenly whisks her away to an only modestly strange magical kingdom. Winding up in Endor College, the film’s abruptly appearing fantasy characters, varying from a talking stable-keeping badger never afforded a whiff of character dimension to a maniacal android chemist whose motives are immediately sketchy, waste no time clunkily explaining every detail of this world to a lightly entranced Mary. It’s typical issue of telling what ought to be shown, which most Ghibli works have handily avoided. Further undercutting our sense of wonder is how easily and simplistically this world seems to cater to young Mary’s sense of self-esteem, quickly ameliorating her wobbly confidence by insisting that she’s suddenly, without any effort on her part, a child prodigy in this world. Nothing is learned and nobody grows, but there’s the illusion of progress.
That remains an overwhelming problem with Yonebayashi’s latest, so dead-set on capturing the boundless visual imagination of his ancestral studio that he loses track of what made his films at Studio Ghibli so exceptionally distinctive. Arrietty and Marnie may have been smaller, more down-to-earth fables, but the lack of an elaborate, cumbersome mythology only further emphasized their humble beauty and everyday sense of anguish. The characters inhabiting Mary and the Witch’s Flower don’t have the space to naturally follow their own feelings, always being forcefully ushered into failure or heroism, friendship or anger. When we finally reach a key revelation about Mary’s and the flower’s origins, not only is it expected, but it holds little to no emotional weight, the larger magical drama not particularly keyed in to Mary’s own, admittedly superficial, problems.
What Mary lacks in emotional authenticity, though, it works overtime to make up for it in sheer indulgent wonder, visible from the immersive, almost assaultively gorgeous opening sequence. Yonebayashi clearly knows how to choreograph spectacle, guiding the imaginary camera along the periphery, diving headfirst into its fantasy world through a particular vantage point. It still feels like there’s simply too much phantasmagoria on display, over-inundating us with creatures and phenomena we don’t have enough time to wrap our minds around. That issue persists throughout the film, cribbing elements of Spirited Away‘s villain and Castle in the Sky‘s mechanical creations. It almost feels like a grab-bag of Ghibli motifs, desperate to retain that studio’s audience, but not yet paving a compelling path forward. For now, it’s a joy to know the magic of hand-drawn animation won’t fade from the world. Hopefully Ponoc will discover its own voice in time.