By John Messer, E23 Reporter

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is playing at Ragtag Cinema at the time of writing (March 13, 2018).

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a film dominated by the discussion surrounding its creation. Its maker, Studio Ponoc, was founded by former Studio Ghibli lead producer Yoshiaki Nishimura and is staffed by many key animators from Ghibli. “Witch’s Flower” itself is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, a former animator and director from Ghibli. With this film being the studio’s first feature film, there are many high expectations being cast upon it.

It doesn’t take an animation expert’s eye to tell you that “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” takes heavy cues from the acclaimed Studio Ghibli. Many of the visual trademarks are present, manifesting in everything from the animal sidekick to the defined jawbones. Similarly, the fantastical story, young girl protagonist and coming-of-age motif all fit the classic Ghibli profile.

Studio Ponoc logo

Image provided by Wikimedia, labeled for reuse. Studio Ponoc was founded in April 2015. “Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is their first feature film.

Is the movie just a clone of the formula? Not entirely. Many of the settings and characters obviously draw massive amounts of influence from films such as “Howl’s Moving Castle,” “Spirited Away” and most notably “Kiki’s Delivery Service.” Mary flies on a broom like Kiki, finds a mysterious castle like Sophia (Howl’s Castle) and returns to the mundane world at the end like Chihiro (Spirited Away). But the film doesn’t wholesale rip anything off and retains enough distinct identity to justify labeling Mary as her own character.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” is a film plagued by too many expectations that reflect on the production. Like this article did just a moment ago, people tend to define all Ghibli films as having a single motif. While it’s true Ghibli films share characteristics with each other (often because they share animators and directors), each has a distinctive motif it is trying to capture and a distinct theme it’s trying to tell. “Howl’s Moving Castle” was anti-war, said that growing old was OK and taught the importance of compassion. “Spirited Away” was a complex meditation on individuality, coming of age and cultural conflicts. “Kiki’s Delivery Service” was about responsibility and leaving home.

“Mary and the Witch’s Flower” tries to capture parts of those aforementioned films and more. A central theme either isn’t there or isn’t clear. It copies and tweaks visual short hands from these previous films but doesn’t meld them together into anything clear or new. Mary rejects the fantasy world and returns to her normal life. The only problem she solves is the one she created. No real lesson is learned beyond the vague “being greedy and obsessive is bad.” This doesn’t mean the film is bad; it just doesn’t really come together to be great.

The animation is of the quality you’d expect for the most part. The opening action sequence is breathtaking, filled with amazing amounts of detail and movement. The rest of the film is drawn admirably well. It does suffer from “lip flaps” and other shorthands; in certain scenes, it looks like made-for-tv animation. The overall quality balances out though.

The version I saw was the English-dub. It works, and it was cool to see Kate Winslet in the cast. The voice acting is pretty run of the mill though, not on par with the much better dubs done for “Howl’s Moving Castle” and “Spirited Away.” Winslet and Jim Broadbent give good performances, but the rest of the cast is perfunctory.

SPOILER: The film suffers from “Cooler Story Syndrome,” wherein they give us hints of a story much more interesting than the one we’re watching in a flashback. It makes the viewer think: “why aren’t we watching that instead?” Specifically, we learn that Mary’s great aunt was the girl in the opening cinematic and learn later about how she got into her situation. That story is much more interesting and exciting than Mary’s. But perhaps that observation is too subjective to be useful.

It’s unfortunate how heavily “Mary’s” being compared to Ghibli films (like this article did). It also feels unavoidable, however, for all the previously pointed out reasons. Hopefully, Studio Ponoc builds past their Ghibli films and develops a distinct identity in their films. “Mary” was by no means bad, but they have to develop unique themes in their movies if they want the studio to be successful. Fingers crossed.

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