In 2013, shortly after the release of The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki called it a day on making feature films after a career spent redefining what animation could do via such towering classics as My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, and Spirited Away. Miyazaki had nothing left to prove and opted to focus on shorts and the museum dedicated to his production company, Studio Ghibli. The retirement didn’t take; Miyazaki’s now at work on a new feature film. But that didn’t mean it didn’t have consequences. With Studio Ghibli’s future in doubt, several key players left to form Studio Ponoc in 2015 and soon began work on its first feature, Mary and The Witch’s Flower.
The results suggest that Ponoc was guided by a single principle: If Studio Ghibli won’t make Studio Ghibli films anymore, then we will. Which is to say Mary and The With’s Flower is delightful — a visually stunning fairy tale filled with whimsical ideas and warmly realized characters — but also familiar. That’s a small complaint, but one worth getting out of the way. The film follows Mary (voiced in the English version by Ruby Barnhill), a girl who moves to a new home and begins to explore her magical powers. Shades of Totoro, Spirited Away, and especially Kiki’s Delivery Service. It even features a sassy cat, albeit one who doesn’t talk.
The film’s adapted from a 1971 children’s novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, so it comes by its story honestly. (And it’s probably worth considering whether or not The Little Broomstick also belongs on list of the many sources from which J.K. Rowling drew inspiration for Harry Potter). But it’s hard to shake a sense that Ponoc is playing it safe with such Miyazaki-friendly material, even without the involvement of their former boss.
With that said, there’s a lot to love about Mary and The Witch’s Flower, which opens with an eye-catching set piece of a rebel witch fleeing what we’ll later learn is Endor, a school for magic perched high in the clouds. This act of rebellion will eventually lead Mary to discover a broomstick and a mysterious flower, objects that will take her through the clouds and to Endor.
Recognized as a potentially powerful witch, she’s embraced by Endor’s leaders, Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent), and seems to be on the Harry Potter track to magical greatness. But it doesn’t take long for Mary to recognize that something is rotten in Endor, where magic is sometimes applied without any regard for its consequences, most disturbingly in a series of experiments attempting to create Island of Doctor Moreau-like animal/human hybrids.
The setting and premise allow Studio Ponoc to show what it can do. Part fin de siècle steampunk bauble, part Death Star, Endor is a visual wonder filled with gleaming, wondrous objects and unsettling creatures. Just as crucially, Mary and The Witch’s Flower has heart, an even tougher quality to import from the Studio Ghibli classics it’s trying to match. Mary’s a winning, willful character who takes a stand against unjust authority and her adventure doubles as journey to understanding that sometimes authority has to be taken down.
That’s heady stuff for a kids’ cartoon, but part of what’s made Studio Ghibli so remarkable has been its willingness to push kids toward themes and ideas that might be outside their comfort zone. It now looks like this splinter group is ready to take up the same task, even if it hasn’t quite yet found a voice of its own.