Welcome, all, again. I last night (Thursday, 18 January) watched Mary and The Witch’s Flower, and I encourage you to see it. Studio Ponoc’s first feature film shows a lot of promise, as well as Ponoc’s Studio Ghibli roots. Mind you, there were problems, with limited character development and one arresting moment of lazy, sloppy artwork being chief amongst them. But overall, this was a well-scripted and well-executed film. Lots of color, lots of movement, lots of beautiful English countryside.
This story is a busy one, working on several different levels. Mary has moved into the home of her Great Aunt Charlotte, where she awaits the arrival of her parents. She is adventurous and overly energetic, tending to break delicate things through inadvertently rough handling. With a week to pass before school begins, Mary meets and instantly dislikes a boy named Peter, who is about her own age. But she is much more friendly with Peter’s cats Tib and Gib, who lead her into the woods and to a strange flower which her aunt’s gardener identifies as a fly-by-night, or the witch’s flower. Mary is accidentally imbued with the flower’s magical powers, and finds herself whisked away into a world of witchcraft and sorcery (things complementary yet quite different). It turns out that some very powerful magic-wielders, Headmistress Mumblechook and Dr. Dee of Endor College for witches, have been seeking the selfsame flower found by Mary, putting her at eventual odds with them. Then things really go south right as Mary discovers that her newfound powers last only one night. And that’s the basic gist of the story, without giving too much away.
Except that there’s much more to consider. As I mentioned in the post about acquiring tickets for last night’s premiere opening, Mary and The Witch’s Flower is based upon Mary Stewart’s book The Little Broomstick. This book was published in 1971, during a time when the back-to-earth and self-sufficiency movements were really taking hold. (Consider that Mother Earth News began publication in 1970.) There is a strong theme running through our story about the need for mankind to respect nature and natural order. Both magic and science, which are blended in Dee’s research and Endor’s curricula, alter the natural order, and we the audience are forced to gaze upon resultant abominations. (Let it be noted that witchcraft–and shamanism–traditionally work through and in conjunction with nature. But changes are still effected.) Mary is disgusted by the corruption she witnesses, both of nature and the human heart, and fights desperately to purge it. And yet, her opponents–while perfectly willing to employ unscrupulous tactics–have the ultimately noble intention of seeking to create a world wherein everyone can use and benefit from magic. Does the end justify the means? Of course not! But how much do the means tarnish or possibly invalidate the end? This story accused and condemned us based upon our willingness to de-sanctify nature for the sake of our own convenience and comfort. But Mary represents the hope of mankind’s return to a more harmonious coexistence with our environment. Her triumph would be our own.
Now, then, what else? Well, about the “lazy, sloppy artwork” comment from earlier. I am referring to one scene in particular late in the movie, when Mumblechook has set her minions upon Mary and is rushing away with her purloined spoils. As Mary and her pursuers fade into the distance, they of course lose detail. That is only natural and is to be expected. But rather than a gradual loss of detail, the viewer suddenly only sees moving, swirling blurs without any detail whatsoever. And I remember a momentary pang of disappointment, thinking to myself that with all these refugees from Studio Ghibli working on this project, how did this happen? That would never have passed muster at Ghibli! And mind you, Studio Ponoc was founded by Ghibli refugees as a response to Ghibli’s cessation of production in 2014 after Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement. These folks were so passionate about continuing to make movies that they first made their own replacement studio. Still, maybe it’s unfair to hold them to Ghibli standards. That single brief moment was really the one complaint I had about the artwork, and it was only a few brief seconds out of an entire movie. Personally, I would also have liked to have seen a little more in the way of character development, but I realize that the theme of nature under attack took precedence on that front; those were the times in which the original story was written. Hopefully, viewers of the general release will see the same interviews and commentary at the movie’s end as did we at the premiere showing. It was a fascinating bit of insight into the thought processes and goals of the folks who made this film.
So, was it worth seeing? Yes! This is a marvelous film overall, especially considering that it’s the first feature film from a fledgling studio. The story is very direct and easy to follow; the characters are charming despite their slightness of depth; and the English countryside is portrayed in loving vision, if somewhat Impressionistic style. I look forward to even greater things from this collective of talent, but for right now, I’m very grateful for and appreciative of their first offering. Kudos, Ponoc! And, thank you.