Mary and the Witch’s Flower is the first feature released by Studio Ponoc. The founders of this new studio, Hiromasa Yonebayashi and Yoshiaki Nishimura, are former protégés of the renowned Studio Ghibli, and the work of the masters they learned from echoes through every frame of this new film. That’s a mixed blessing, both for the creators as well as the fans.
When legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki decided to retire in 2014 following the release of his last film, The Wind Rises, Studio Ghibli announced it was halting production, at least temporarily. Producer Nishimura founded Studio Ponoc in 2015 in the wake of Ghibli’s decision, and many veterans from the latter went to work for the new production house, including Yonebayashi, who’d been groomed as a director at the famed studio. After producing a TV ad, they began working on an adaptation of The Little Broomstick, a children’s book by British novelist, Mary Stewart.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is charming. The richness and depth of the set designs—as well as the level of activity going on in the background—reveal an attention to detail that comes close to approximating the best of Ghibli. Examined in isolation, the film stands on its own merits. It features great artistry, polish and craft. The problem is, we rarely analyze things on their own and comparison is inevitable.
From the moment they chose the source material, the filmmakers knew there’d be (or made a conscious choice to seek), comparisons to the work of Miyazaki. Whether they meant it as an homage to the master, or a signal they were taking the baton from him, is irrelevant. Even a casual admirer of the Ghibli catalogue will find several obvious thematic and visual connections between some of the studio’s films, like Kiki’s Delivery Service or Howl’s Moving Castle, and Ponoc’s initial effort. A more knowledgeable fan will go further, and wonder if this new movie isn’t simply a composite of Miyazaki’s entire film legacy.
The problem with taking that approach is that it’s doomed to fail.
You can’t top a master by copying him. As great as certain parts of Mary and the Witch’s Flower are, they aren’t better than those that inspired them. In terms of the quality of the animation, as well as the level of artistry, Miyazaki sets too high a standard to emulate, let alone exceed. When the headmistress of a school for young witches emerges from a fountain as a being composed of water, it’s beautifully rendered—but it’s too reminiscent of similar character designs and effects found in Miyazaki’s films. “Been there, seen that” isn’t a reaction you want to elicit when establishing your own, unique brand—particularly if the original was better executed.
However, it’s in the storytelling and the presentation of strong thematic elements and messages that Miyazaki stands alone. When the New York Times film critics recently ranked the best films of the century so far, they placed Spirited Away at number two, behind PT Anderson’s masterpiece, There Will Be Blood—and despite being an animated, kid-friendly film, some would argue it deserved top spot. The emotional depth of what he creates, often with only the simplest of plots, reveals an innate understanding of how to tell a resonant story. Miyazaki’s films remain in your consciousness.
Mary and the Witch’s Flower is a bittersweet viewing experience. It’s ephemeral. The film shows great artistic promise, but it doesn’t linger in the imagination or lead to philosophical exploration as the best of Miyazaki’s films do. However, fans of Ghibli will be happy to know that the legacy of the house style will carry on with Studio Ponoc—and that someone will continue to aim for that very high bar.
Intended or not, another consequence of this film’s release will be a stark reality check; we will soon have to accept that we won’t see any new films from the master, Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps that was what these former apprentices wanted all along—to ensure we won’t just look back with nostalgic longing for what once was, after the great man has passed. Maybe the new generation at Ponoc want us to fully appreciate and celebrate the man while he’s still around… So, when exactly does Ghibli plan to release Kimitachi wa Dou Ikiru Ka (“How Do You Live?”)?