(This is a----mostly!----spoiler free review)
Last night I had the pleasure of seeing a subbed showing of Mary and the Witch's Flower and oh boy, friends, they're not calling Studio Ponoc "the new Ghibli" for nothing.
Of course, this is what happens when you pull together key animators who used to work for Ghibli and set them on a new project in the shadow of that legacy. Whether or not this film honors or plagiarizes the iconography we've come to associate primarily with Miyazaki's work is certainly up for debate, but I for one was too wrapped up in nostalgia to care about such things. Mary and the Witch's Flower hosts all the gorgeous, spellbinding imagery that we've come to cherish: viscous water and tears that obey emotions far more than reality, that classic rising of the hair when someone becomes scared or upset, food so detailed that you'd rather have that to eat than whatever is waiting for you at home...
How can anime McDonalds look so good...?
To say nothing of the actual plot. Mary is a spirited, but innocent girl----the exact kind of protagonist that Miyazaki has upheld in so many of his films, giving her an adventure and friendship without shoehorning in romance when, let's be real, that's not at all needed. There's a slightly evil witch who intimidates but maybe isn't completely evil after all. A black cat and broomstick friend. Other animals who happily assist Mary on her journey. A boy who (again) is allowed to be her friend and nothing more. It's about as Ghibli as non-Ghibli can be.
Now to be fair, what I see as the film's greatest strength may well be its greatest weakness as well because though nostalgia carries it far, Mary and the Witch's Flower doesn't offer up much in the way of innovation. Based off The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, the story unfolds about exactly as you'd imagine. In fact, even a minor spoiler warning for this review is excessive given that almost anyone could guess the plot of the film based solely on tropes and cultural knowledge. Though our antagonists' motives do provide one mystery for a while, the rest is staggeringly obvious. We know thanks to the trailers what Mary will find in the woods. We know how a magic school usually functions. We know how our protagonist will turn her flaws around. And we know based on genre and the targeted age range how the plot will resolve, who will prove victorious, and who will be punished for their wrongdoings. With the exception of one moment
wherein Mary helps Peter (notably a rare, male victim) briefly obtain magic, thereby helping him to save himself rather than doing all the work alone, thus allowing for a refreshing balance in agency,
Mary and the Witch's Flower doesn't give us anything new in terms of narrative or animation. Though then again... does it really need to? As a lover of things like fanfiction, adaptations, fables, and fairytales, I'm well versed in the allure of familiarity, the unique comfort of knowing how a story will pan out and enjoying the ride as it does. That's what Ponoc's first film offers us: symbolic comfort food condensed into an hour and forty-three minutes. And honestly? With 2017 releases like Boss Baby and The Emoji Movie, I'll take the well-worn, reliable story, thanks. It's sure as hell a lot better than those alternatives.
The question then is whether Ponoc can give us innovation as well as nostalgia. This is their first major film and developing out of Ghibli it only makes sense that they'd first honor their roots; maybe even play it a little safe. Whether or not they stick to that format remains to be seen. I'm personally rather optimistic. Mary and the Witch's flower was a solid, enjoyable film that had me laughing and smiling all the way through, well worth the price of a movie ticket, and that will always be something to praise.
Besides, the film dispenses wisdom like, "Cats don't actually belong to anyone. We only assume they do." True words, true words. I suspect that Ponoc knows exactly what it's about and I'm excited to see where they'll take us next.
GIF #1-2: http://goboiano.com/gifs-from-the-mcdonalds-anime-commercial-to-make-you-hungry/