In September 2013, famed director and Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement. He had made such proclamations before but this time he promised he was serious. A few months later, the studio announced there would be a brief pause in production in order to re-evaluate where the company would go without their founder and creative leader. Speculation was that they would never produce a new movie but might venture into releasing films made by other companies. Amongst all of this, Yoshiaki Nishimura, a lead producer for Ghibli, started a new company, Studio Ponoc. Soon after, many animators from Ghibli switched to Ponoc. They just released their first film Mary and the Witch’s Flower which is currently seeing a limited theatrical release by GKIDS and Fathom Events.
Based upon the book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stuart, the film follows Mary (Ruby Barnhill), a young girl who recently moved in with her Great Aunt Charlotte (Lynda Baron) at an old English cottage in a small country village. She is there in the depths of summer while all the children her age are off on holiday. She is terribly bored and wants desperately to help - with the cleaning, the cooking, or with the flowers in the garden - but she’s not very good at any of it. She means well but her help always ends in things breaking.
One day she follows a black cat into the woods and finds a beautiful flower. The Gardner tells her it is very rare, only growing in this area once every seven years. Superstition says that it is coveted by witches because it contains great magical power. The next day the cat leads Mary to an old tree where she finds a broomstick. Accidentally smashing the bulb of the witch’s flower between her hands, she rubs it on the broom stick which magically begins to fly. It takes her to a floating school of magic where she meets Madame Mumbelchook (Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Jim Broadbent) who want the witch’s flower for their own nefarious means. If you don’t know how its going to turn out, then you clearly haven’t watched enough animated family films in the last decade.
There is a lot of Ghibli DNA in this film. Obviously, this stems from a lot of Ghibli creative personnel being behind it in their new home at Ponoc. But it feels less of a theft than that of a torch being passed. The animation is gorgeous and reminiscent of any number of Ghibli films. There are fluid, oil-like creatures similar to ones found in Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Doctor Dee looks a great deal like Kamaji from Howl’s Moving Castle, etc. It's enough that I sometimes wished they’d branched out a little more and created something less Ghibli and more whatever Ponoc will become but still wonderful to look at. The backgrounds of nature have that Ghibli look as well. In an interview after my showing, director Hiromasa Yonebayashi notes that the crew, much like they did on Ghibli films, visited England to get a feel for the landscape, but while they did take photos for reference, the animation was never intended to be photorealistic but rather drawn from memories and the impressions or memories of the place.
The story, beginning in its small village and moving to something entirely more expansive and magical with a young female protagonist who learns to believe in herself, has a very Ghibli feel as well. It's just as lovely and wonderful as the best that studio has made. It's difficult to complain that the film feels a little too much like the films of one of the great studios of the last half century, but one does hope they will move out of Ghibli’s shadow. I supect in their following films they will create something more their own while retaining the same magic that makes so many love Studio Ghibli like no other movie house in recent memory.
I was excited to see what Studio Ponoc could do on their own and Mary and the Witch’s Flower proves they have taken the Studio Ghibli torch and ran with it. I’m just as excited to note that Miyazaki has once again come out of retirement and is reportedly directing another film for Studio Ghibli.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is showing in theaters via Fathom Events (which include interviews with director Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoc founder Yoshiaki Nishimura)for one more day, February 26. While I saw the English-dubbed version, the next one will feature original Japanese audio with English subtitles. You can get your tickets at the Fathom Events website.