Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Movie Review: Mary and the Witch's Flower

Mary and the Witch’s Flower *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi.
Written by: Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Riko Sakaguchi based on the novel by Mary Stewart.
Starring: Ruby Banrhill (Mary), Kate Winslet (Madame Mumblechook, Jim Broadbent (Doctor Dee), Ewen Bremner (Flanagan), Lynda Baron (Great Aunt Charlotte), Louis Ashbourne Serkis (Peter), Morwenna Banks (Mrs. Banks), Teresa Gallagher (The Red Haired Witch), Rasmus Hardicker (Zebedee).
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first film from Studio Ponoc – the Japanese animation studio founded shortly after the infamous Studio Ghibli decided to stop making movies after the retirement of their two most famous directors – Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata. Luckily for us all, the shuttering of Ghibli appears to have been short lived – Miyazaki is working on another film for release in 2020 (Takahata died earlier this year). Many of those involved with making Mary and the Witch’s Flower were once employed by Ghibli – including director Hiromasa Yonebayashi – who directed The Secret World of Arietty and When Marnie Was There (which was to be Ghibli’s final film). You can tell that the film was made by people who worked for Ghibli – the animation style is similar, as is the storytelling. In fact, perhaps the highest compliment I can pay to this film is that had you told me it was a Ghibli film, I would have believed you.
The story focuses on Mary (Ruby Barnhill), a red headed girl, staying with her Great Aunt Charlotte in the English countryside, waiting for both her parents to join them, and for school to open in a week. For now, she’s got nothing to do – and apparently all the other children (save for a boy named Peter, who Mary does not like, for no real reason) won’t return until school starts. So Mary basically spends her days doing nothing. One day, she follows a black cat into the forest, and as if her named was Alice, and she was following a white rabbit, she discovers a magical world just on the outskirts of ours. She ends up at a school for Witches, run by Madame Mumblechook (Kate Winslet) – and for reasons she doesn’t fully understand, she is able to do more with magic than she should be able to do with no training. All of this will, we assume, come back to the beginning of the film that involved another young, red haired girl, running away from fire and fury – and spreading a blue flower – that Mary, of course, discovers, around the countryside.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower takes a little while to get going after its explosive opening scene. There isn’t much conflict in the films first half – and everyone seems nice, even Doctor Dee (voiced by Jim Broadbent) who doesn’t look nice. Of course, eventually, conflict will arise – and magical duels will be had, although interestingly for a movie about magic, the basic message is that magic isn’t needed at all. Little Mary is smart and brave and strong, and she wins not by being the chosen one – not by being better at magic than everyone – but simply by being smarter. She has everything she needed the whole time.
The animation is, of course, beautiful throughout – and the action sequences in the film are as good as anything you will see in a Ghibli film. This is Yonebayashi’s best film as a director so far – it’s not quite as ponderous and sad as When Marnie Was There, and doesn’t feel as much as a rehash as Arietty did. Still, there is something about the film that I don’t think ever quite rises to the level of the best Ghibli films. Part of it is that the plot takes so long to really kick into gear. This can be true of Ghibli as well – but usually there is something else to hold your interest other than the beautiful animation. Miyazaki didn’t always need a plot at all (look at My Neighbor Tortoro) to make something moving and profound – but that isn’t really what this film wants to do either. The film is a fun and entertaining film the entire way through – which bodes well for more from Studio Ponoc. But perhaps too it’s just a little too thin to be truly great. Still, until we get more from Studio Ghibli, I’ll gladly watch anything this gifted team of artists come up with.

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