Mary and the Witch’s Flower (2017): Written by Riko Sakaguchi and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Starring: Hana Sugisaki, Ryunosuke Kamiki, Yuki Amami, Fumiyo Kohinata, and Hikari Mitsushima. Running Time: 102 minutes. Based on the novel of the same name by Mary Stewart.
It would certainly be understandable to look at certain recent events- Miyazaki’s half-retirement, the shaky possibility that Studio Ghibli may soon shutter its production wing, and the passing of Isao Takahata- and wonder if Japanese animation will ever be the same again. Certainly, an era has irrevocably passed, but thankfully new, equally-excellent works have continued to come out in recent years. Whether or not Studio Ghibli ever reopens for business, its spirit remains alive and well in the likes of Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who directed two of the (so far) last-ever Ghibli productions (Arrietty and When Marne Was There) and has now founded his own animation studio. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is their first feature film, and will hopefully be merely the first of a great many to come.
Mary is sent to the countryside by her parents for school, where she will live in a grand mansion near a forest she’s not supposed to enter when the mists come. It’s hard adjusting- she is a bit of a bumbler, and being the estate of an elderly lady, there are lots of breakable things around for her to trip into. She also doesn’t fancy the attitude of the local package boy who brings mail to the lady almost daily, but at least he has two really sweet cats who soon take a shine to Mary.
Inevitably, she does end up in the woods one day when the mists come, and finds a strange flower that, when crushed, grants her magical powers, and also activates an old broomstick she found hidden in the vines. This whisks her and the cats off into a seemingly-parallel world above the clouds, a place of witches and warlocks, and a massive school complex where she is informed that she is clearly a natural talent who will lead the school to great things. But all is not as it seems, and she soon suspects the school harbors some sort of dark secret within its walls.
You can probably guess much of the rest from there. Narratively speaking, it is a very standard, meat-and-potatoes sort of affair, and that is the movie’s biggest flaw. An average girl, with several obvious flaws, stumbles by chance into a world of wonder and adventure, mixing fantasy with typical coming-of-age lessons; it’s a very condensed Harry Potter. An amazing world filled with potential is built up, but we only see a small corner of it and that merely opens up far more questions that the film itself can answer in a satisfying manner.
But oh, the visuals that are here to gorge on. Much like Howl’s Moving Castle, another film that was short on story depth but long on eye candy, the deficiencies of the story are (mostly) made up for by the dizzying amount of imaginative detail packed into every frame. This is the sort of film that once again proves my longstanding maxing that literally every kind of story, no matter how standard or blasé, is better when it’s animated.
There are many effective sequences to appreciate, including the flying scenes, the clearest throwbacks to Miyazaki’s old obsession with flight. What magical creatures and powers we encounter make for some fascinating possibilities that the third act utilizes very well, and the opening chase scene is dynamite. And though he is no Joe Hisaishi (who is?), Takatsugu Muramatsu’s score is a fine work that already stands as one of the year’s best to date.
Ultimately, though, the film does not reach the same heights Yonebayashi’s first two works achieved. Arrietty was a small and rather downplayed tale, but filled to the brim with the poignant, nostalgic sadness of memories, and of friendships the trials of life forced apart. When Marne Was There managed to use a simple ghost story as a catalyst for exploring childhood traumas of identity, abandonment, bullying, physical and mental illness, and even sexuality, and revolved around a surprisingly effective third-act twist; the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that it’s one of the decade’s most underrated masterpieces.
As pretty as it is, Mary and the Witch’s Flower simply doesn’t have the resonant emotional depth of either of its predecessors, although it does include an interesting sub-theme of animal cruelty and how that inevitably doubles back to bite those who treat their fellow creatures cruelly. It’s a small lesson, but still an important one. This is a sweet film, absolutely lovely to look at, and a strong beachhead against those who would insist that without its aging meisters, Japanese animation can never again reach the heights it achieved in past decades.
Nonsense. This is merely the beginning of something quite new, and possibly even better.