Director: Hiromasa Yonebayashi
Runtime: 102 minutes
Debuting an animation studio is difficult enough without the immense expectations of the Studio Ghibli legacy bearing down on you. However Studio Ponoc’s first feature-length film Mary and the Witch’s Flower is both a refreshing experience and an artful homage to their origins in the Ghibli powerhouse. It is not simply a case of renaming the same studio, and under director Hiromasa Yonebayashi’s guidance, Studio Ponoc has delivered a beautiful film that anyone would be proud of to have as their studio’s debut.
Based on Mary Stewart’s The Little Broomstick, the film delivers an honest and charming adaptation that will delight children and adults alike. Mary (Hana Sugisaki), our titular character, has been sent to the countryside to live with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Ôtake), and soon finds herself bored when all of her endeavours to help result in minor accidents.
Sick of her own clumsiness and being teased by local boy Peter (Ryûnosuke Kamiki), Mary sets off into the woods for a picnic. Following two cats, Mary discovers a rare flower called “fly-by-night”. Soon after, one of the cats goes missing. Mary ventures back into the woods to find it, instead finding a broomstick. When Mary accidentally squashes a bulb of the fly-by-night flower onto the handle, it comes to life and transports her to Endor College for witches.
While Mary appreciates the attention headmistress Madame Mumblechook (Yûki Amami) bestows upon her, it soon turns sour as Mary discovers the nefarious experiments that Mumblechook and her colleague Doctor Dee (Fumiyo Kohinata) have been conducting in the college’s dungeons. Mary escapes the college with a book of spells, only to discover that Peter has been kidnapped in her absence. Madame Mumblechook demands the last of the fly-by-night flower in exchange for Peter, and Mary resolves that, despite the teasing, she will rescue Peter.
The narrative themes of Mary and the Witch’s Flower are highly reminiscent of Studio Ghibli works, and it is hard to separate the studios considering most of Ponoc are former Ghibli animators. However, Ponoc has strived to achieve something different, returning to earlier themes of youthful change and experience that Ghibli has left behind in recent years. It is telling that Studio Ponoc have been drawn to adapting Stewart’s story of a young, resourceful girl who wants to change for the better, reflecting Ghibli movies like Kiki’s Delivery Service and Spirited Away.
While Mary and the Witch’s Flower lacks a little of the character depth and internal conflict that makes Ghibli films masterpieces, it is not a huge flaw especially as Studio Ponoc had a smaller workforce, budget, and technology pool to draw from. This reduced workforce is evident in a few scenes, where some of the animations are less smooth than they could have been under the hand of Miyazaki.
However, these are minor flaws, and only recognisable if one has been spoilt by the richly detailed, much bigger budgeted Studio Ghibli films. With their visual style so closely linked to Studio Ghibli—I wouldn’t be surprised if people had assumed it was a Ghibli film from the poster—separating Ponoc and Ghibli is a task I have still yet to achieve.
At any rate, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a debut for Studio Ponoc that rightfully brings them into the spotlight of the animation industry. With their deft touch, and years of Ghibli experience, Ponoc have created a sweet, endearing film that doesn’t take any huge narrative gambles, and yet still remains enjoyable for all ages and for dedicated fans of Studio Ghibli. I look forward to seeing what the studio comes up with next, and I hope that Yonebayashi becomes as much of a household name in Japanese animation as Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli.