After leaving the famed Studio Ghibli, Hiromasa Yonebayashi formed Studio Ponoc in the spring of 2015. Having been a key animator on such classics as Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, as well as directing The Secret World of Arrietty and When Marnie Was There, he knew his way around an animation house. In July of 2017, he and his new studio released their first endeavor, Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which was based off the book The LIttle Broomstick by Mary Stewart. While he certainly brought a lot of what he learned over to his new studio, would it be enough to have their first feature film be held up among the Ghibli giants?
Mary certainly starts off with a bang. A young girl, escaping with something from a burning facility, is chased by wondrous magical creatures. She gets on a flying broomstick to try and permanently evade her pursuers, but fails, crashing to the ground along with the mysterious flower she was carrying. Years pass. A well intentioned yet inept young girl named Mary ends up finding the flower and the broomstick after following a cat into a forest. She is soon whisked away to the land from which they came, giving her quite more than she bargained for in the last few days of her summer vacation.
Where Mary ends up would give JK Rowling a few ideas for the next iteration of Hogwarts. As she runs around the Endor College school for witches and warlocks trying to uncover the secrets behind the mysterious flower, and prove to herself that she’s a capable human being, she runs into all sorts of fantastic beasts and magical locales. As soon as you see the head mistress manifest herself in a fountain, you know you’re in store for something special.
And that aesthetic is what Studio Ponoc nails with their first outing. This universe feels fantastic. You can immediately sense the influence of Spirited Away as the world constructed here feels like it has dozens of backstories itching to be told. They really took the source material and ran with it, building an intricate fantasy world for the story to take place. Some of the designs are truly a delight and this film really bodes well for the future of Studio Ponoc, at least artistically.
But once you move away from the images on screen, the cracks begin to show. Characters are either under developed or needlessly complex. We don’t need the whole back story of the witching school’s headmistress, but the tale of Peter, who plays a large role in the climax, should have been more than that kid in town who kind of looks after the stray cat that Mary followed to kick off the adventure. Convenient plot devices also abound, whether it be a tertiary character showing up at just the right time or a certain “surely they could have thought of something better than that” magic spell. It’s a shame because these moments detract from some of the more exciting and memorable parts of the narrative.
I have very mixed feelings about Mary and the Witch’s Flower. On one hand the world building and animation are all top notch, this is a fabulous word and is worth experiencing at least once. But I also feel that this was a missed opportunity. Blame it on the source material, or the way it was adapted, but the nuance and heart of Ghibli’s best works is missing. But for a first effort from a new studio, it could have been a hell of a lot worse. If they are able to iron out some of the wrinkles going forward, Yonebayashi and Studio Ponoc can have a very bright future ahead of them.