As the old saying goes: if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it is probably a duck. But does that apply to everything? If a movie looks like a Ghibli, sounds like a Ghibli and feels like a Ghibli…then is it a Ghibli? Well, almost. Studio Ponoc is a new studio formed of former Ghibli employees, including lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, so naturally they use a lot of elements that Ghibli is most famous for. From the animation style (emotional hair included), to their choice of material to adapt (an English novel, which Ghibli has done several times – two of which were directed by this very film’s director, Hiromasa Yonebayashi), and even the studio logo is ripped from them (a silhouette outline of a character from their films). But does being a heavily inspired Ghibli production make this a sure-fire winner, or a mistake from the get-go?
Mary Smith is a little girl who’s just moved to the English countryside with her Great Aunt Charlotte, but finds herself very bored and out of her element, not helped by the local boy, Peter, making fun of her red hair. Until one day she stumbles into the woods and finds a mysterious, glowing blue flower. When she takes it home, she discovers that it’s called a ‘fly-by-night’ or ‘The Witch’s Flower’, that not only blooms once every seven years but also grants magical powers for a limited time. On her first burst of magic, she’s mistaken for a prodigy witch by a magical college and its headmistress Madame Mumblechook, but can she and the school be trusted?
Studio Ghibli is synonymous with quality across its filmography but there are actually three different types of Ghibli film; you have the type that is enriched with political and/or environmental themes that Miyazaki is passionate about (this would include The Wind Rises and Princess Mononoke), the films which are high-fantasy adventures with inspiring stories (such as Spirited Away and Laputa; Castle in the Sky) and lastly the simpler flicks that are by no means lower in quality but often have a younger audience in mind (My Neighbour Totoro and The Cat Returns being two of them). This is why Ghibli is so beloved because they have such diverse quality and moods that the audience can take from them. If this movie was made officially by Ghibli, Mary and the Witch’s Flower would fall mostly in the second category with a few elements from the last. But still, despite its brand recognition, The Ghibli name doesn’t always guarantee success, with the likes of Tales of Earthsea being its worst rated movie so far, and its first venture into TV (Ronja the Robber’s Daughter) being a mixed bag at best. Luckily, Mary and the Witch’s Flower doesn’t just rely on its animation and company’s origins to promote itself; it’s a charming movie in its own right.
From the very beginning the film draws you in with its likeable and eccentric cast in a fully realised world. Mary is a delightful character that the audience, especially kids, can relate to whilst the adults can laugh at the sprinkles of humour added through the film that often come from her fiery personality. Mary is brave, curious and insecure about her red hair, so of course when a clan of witches takes an instant liking to her, she’s more than happy to be whisked away into a world of magic. The movie also doesn’t hang around too long before the magical hi-jinks and mystery kick in; The Endor College for witches takes some visual cues from more modern fantasy media such as Harry Potter and Zork (even though the original book pre-dates them both) but it doesn’t feel derivative or lazy in creation. In fact, you almost want the movie to take place fully inside the school because we’re shown so much but get to see only little pieces here and there of it. The climax of the movie takes full advantage of its magical setting, however it does drag on for a little bit; Mary comes to the school to face off with the villains but for various reasons has to escape and then come back again to really finish them off, which makes the third act of the film a bit of a drag, but allows for more heart-warming moments.
The English dub has a lot of talented actors at the helm, including Kate Winslet and Jim Broadbent; both very versatile actors who clearly had a lot of fun here playing the villains, especially Ms Winslet who doesn’t normally play the bad guy. In the leading role is very young Ruby Barnhill, who’s only taken part in one film before this dub and does incredibly well, effortlessly delivering a wide range of emotions from boredom to scared to bouncy. This girl has a bright future ahead of her. As for the script itself; it’s mostly very faithful to the original Japanese with two minor but noticeable changes. One is the spells; the English dub often makes spells longer and ending in rhymes, it wasn’t needed but it adds a unique flavour to the mix. Also, as the story is set in the English countryside, the script has been tweaked to include more English slang. Not too much, but enough to feel authentic; it’s been very well done and is greatly helped by the British-heavy casting.
On-disc extras includes press conference of the film’s completion, making of featurette, trailers, TV spots and interviews with the director Hiromasa Yonebayashi and producer Yoshiaki Nishimura. The limited edition Blu-ray also comes with art cards and a copy of the English dub script. Speaking of, when you enter the disc’s menu you’ll notice that there are two options to watch the movie – in English or Japanese – rather than the usual switching of languages in the Set Up menu. That’s because if you watch it in English, the subtitles will be of the dub ONLY with additional non-verbal descriptions for the hard of hearing, whilst the Japanese selection will give you a proper English translation of the original script.
If you were hoping that former-Ghibli employees breaking out to create their own studio would result in a radically different movie, then you’ll likely be disappointed. But if you love Ghibli, desire more of it, or are simply willing to look past this title’s Ghibli-related beginnings, then you’ll find a charming, magical and fun family movie with beautiful animation from a studio that clearly wants to make more delightful films in the future.