As a big enough fan of Studio Ghibli’s work to have a rather large Princess Mononoke tattoo on my arm, I was excited when I heard of Studio Ponoc, an animation studio made up of ex-Ghibli employees. However, this also meant that I approached Mary and the Witch’s Flower with a reasonable deal of trepidation, unsure of whether it could live up to the unbelievably high standard set by Hayao Miyazaki, the late Isao Takahata and other contributors. Thankfully, as I watched from the Parent and Baby screening at the brilliant Dukes Theatre – one of the only local screenings available – I discovered that Studio Ponoc certainly holds the ability to carry the Ghibli legacy onwards to new heights.
The plot of the film is fairly simple: Mary, a young girl bored at the prospect of summer in the country, is transported to a world of magic when she stumbles across the fly-by-night flower in the local woods. She, similarly to Ghibli protagonists like Spirited Away’s Chihiro, is a curious young girl who is driven by her sheer determination and her desire to become the best version of herself, as well as to help others. I have always found these protagonists fascinating, especially because of their flaws (in Mary’s case her curiosity and poor self-image), and I particularly appreciate depictions of flawed, interesting young girls in major releases – six-year-old me would be watching this film on repeat for a week and wanting to dress up as Mary.
Of course, the visuals were stunning. Would you expect anything less? The lush watercoloured backgrounds and smooth, detailed hand-drawn animation are an absolute treat to watch, particularly in the spectacular opening, which is worth the ticket price alone. If I had to level any criticism at the film it would be the somewhat on the nose and obtrusive screenplay, but the masterful creature designs more than make up for this, expressing more about characters than dialogue ever could. Personal standouts for me are Mary herself, with her vibrant red hair and grinning face giving a good sense of her playful nature, and the bizarre characters at the magic school of Endor, that add a whimsical yet strange, almost disturbing tone. The score, likewise, is fantastic, lending a grand scale to Mary and the Witch’s Flower that puts it on the level of other Ghibli films with a similar feel.
Whilst certainly lighter in tone than many of the more adult Miyazaki works like Princess Mononoke, it slots in wonderfully alongside the likes of My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service, the latter being the film it most resembles. On a purely personal level, I felt so swept away and enchanted watching this film in the cinema that I struggle to rate it any lower than a nine or so out of ten, though others may understandably feel differently – if you struggle with movies clearly for children, this won’t be for you. But if you can put this aside, the surface level beauty and the emotional depth of Mary and the Witch’s Flower will guarantee you a good time, and likely a welcome respite from the numerous big-budget summer blockbusters out right now, that in my opinion it far surpasses.
Ponoc translates from the Serbo-Croation word for ‘midnight’, implying a new beginning, and this debut film is a fantastic dawning for the Studio.