Based on the 1971 children’s book, “The Little Broomstick” by Mary Stewart, Mary And The Witch’s Flower (Mary To Majo No Hana) is the charming debut fantasy film created by Studio Ponoc in July 2017.
Studio Ponoc led by film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura is a Japanese animation studio made of Studio Ghibli veterans. They decided to establish themselves as a company upon the announcement of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement in April 2015.
As a studio created by individuals who’ve worked alongside Takahata and Miyazaki, it’s difficult to try and not compare Studio Ponoc’s film with that of Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service (Majo no Takkyuubin). Both films are similar in having a lead female protagonist riding on a broomstick while accompanied by a black cat. The protagonist goes on a journey that requires them to build upon their own self-confidence to overcome an obstacle.
The character designs of the protagonists are similar despite them having different hair colours. Kiki (left) having dark brown hair and Mary (right) having wild red locks. The protagonists are drawn with a soft heart shaped face and rosy cheeks.
Despite these similarities, Studio Ponoc executed the film well. Their strength definitely lies in their ability to use hand-drawn images to create smooth and fluid animation. Paired with varying camera angles and a nice musical score, the film’s visuals are dynamic and entertaining to watch.
In the opening sequence of Mary And The Witch’s Flower, for instance, we’re introduced to a burning structure located upon an enormous tree’s branch. A young red haired girl sneakily flits through the shadows to escape this place with a bag in hand, which contains seeds of a particular flower. Bounding across stones, the camera follows the girl, switching to a closer view of the character, shot slightly above her head, to a bird’s eye view to reveal her path and her pursuers rushing to capture her.
The following chase scene was paired with a soft slow melody of an orchestral band that transformed into a cacophony of frantic stringed instruments. This helps emphasize the chaos on screen and the wild winds pushing the nameless redhead through the air as she dodges magical spells, before falling down into a forest.
The background art was also stunning to look at as it was detailed and realistic with textures and a nice use of lighting despite being static. The characters and the objects they interacted with were layered on top of the backdrops. At times, the backgrounds seemed like watercolour paintings made to fill the screen and seemed a tad bit unnatural during the beginning of the film.
The storyline and its progression were well-executed. I enjoyed the story, but I felt there was something missing. I felt there was a lack of emotional connection to the characters and little character development for the secondary characters.
In comparison to Studio Ghibli’s films, Mary And The Witch’s Flower didn’t have quiet moments that are typical in Ghibli films. These moments of repose or montages allow the protagonist to self-reflect in silence or share a soft spoken monologue or conversation of little words. Instead, Mary And The Witch’s Flower has a short moment that is used as a transitional point between events.
I think the film’s biggest weakness lies in its characters’ development other than the protagonist. It could be because of the original source that didn’t focus on all the characters or the movie’s length.
So, here’s the start of a little mini rant:
Whenever I’m watching a show or reading a book, I’m always just as invested in the secondary characters as the protagonists. Secondary characters support the protagonist and can help them grow or regress, but their existence is important because they are there for a reason. It’s just that the spotlight isn’t shone on them and the story didn’t assign them a greater role. But I love stories that take the time to give a bit more to these “side-characters.” Even if it’s a little change or development in their character that may or may not go anywhere, it’s a nice reflection of the human condition that I love reading or watching.
Being the protagonist and having the most screen-time, Mary is a spunky young girl who detests the colour of her hair. She is greatly supported by the secondary characters in the film who act as a foil to Mary’s character arc or are essential to the plot’s progression. Their personalities are a bit flat.
Two examples would be:
Zebedee, the gardener, is a calm, serious man of few words. His role in the grand scheme of the film was to showcase Mary’s clumsiness, emphasizing the idea of how she cannot do anything right on her own. He also was used to push the plot’s progression in revealing the consequence of Mary’s actions.
Flanagan, the former flying broom instructor at Endor College, is loud, commanding everyone’s attention when he enters a scene. His role was to introduce Mary to the magical world of Endor College and helps her out with the maintenance of her (borrowed) broom.
Flanagan’s character was the most visually interesting because he’s the only speaking anthropomorphic mouse. In addition, having Ewen Bremner voice Flanagan and giving him a Scottish accent was a cool choice in the English dub.
However, Peter has an interesting backstory, but it’s a shame that it wasn’t integrated a bit more in some way. He’s a cutie pie who tries hard to do the right thing.
The villains of Mary And The Witch’s Flower aren’t inherently evil. Their ambition to use the power of the Witch’s Flower pushed them to make a misguided decision, leading to horrible results. Their intention wasn’t malicious or meant to harm others. However, their conviction opposes the morals of the heroine, making them, in my opinion, effective villains.
I did enjoy listening to Kate Winslet as Madam Mumblechook in the English dub. She brought a sweetness and strict discipline to the character and I love how she was able to switch between being an enthusiastic teacher to a powerful menacing witch, spewing threats with a smile on her face.
Writing this review of Mary And The Witch’s Flower did push me to compare and contrast Studio Ghibli and Studio Ponoc with each other. It’s like looking at the works of artists at different stages of their career. It seems a bit unfair given that the inherent spirit of Studio Ghibli’s films isn’t necessarily that of Studio Ponoc’s works, even though Studio Ponoc definitely does take inspiration from Studio Ghibli.
Studio Ponoc did a solid job with Mary And The Witch’s Flower and I did enjoy the film with some exceptions.
Have you seen Studio Ponoc’s Mary And The Witch’s Flower? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below!